By Brendan O’Brien, RDS
Leinster 25 Bath 11
Leinster finally stopped the rot in Europe this evening as they claimed a Pool 5 victory - at the fifth time of asking - over a Bath team that still had an outside shot at making the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.
The win was merely the cherry on top.
Home supporters had already been appeased by the presence of half-a-dozen youngsters in the line-up who were starting a European game for the first time. The future was starting here and the chosen ones didn’t let the occasion, such as it was, pass them by.
Hooker James Tracy, who has impressed time and again already this season, stood out with a sensational 47 minutes, but there was plenty of encouragement from others regardless of age, experience or lack of it.
Coach Leo Cullen had gambled by starting such a callow front row but Peter Dooley and Tadhg Furlong backed Tracy up while Ross Molony, the least experienced player on the pitch, earned the man of the match award for his efforts in the second row.
And then there was Rhys Ruddock who was awesome at six, Luke McGrath who kept the motor running with his service at nine, Dave Kearney who showed a return to form on the wing and even the oft-criticised Zane Kirchner who gave one of his better displays at full-back.
The circumstances didn’t hurt.
Leinster’s early elimination from the reckoning in a pool of considerable difficulty made for a performance largely free of individual and collective inhibition and Bath’s penchant for attacking, attractive rugby fed further into an evening that was nice and easy on the eye.
After their four defeats from their previous quartet of games in Europe this season, Leinster basically knew they could afford to swing from the hip but they did just that within a structure that pinned Bath back for vast tracts of an entertaining affair.
The home crowd was consistent with its appreciation of the younger generation’s efforts and if there was a criticism it was a familiar one: a failure to turn hordes of possession and decent opportunities into five and seven points.
Ben Te’o made two superb breaks in the opening 40, Isa Nacewa and Tracy combined for another and, with Luke McGrath and Ian Madigan pulling the strings at nine and ten, the home team was at least consistently threatening the Bath defensive and try lines.
By the break, it was four Madigan penalties to one from George Ford although only a blistering covering run from Dave Kearney after 37 minutes prevented No.8 Leroy Houston touching down for Bath after Jonathan Joseph kicked through to the Leinster in-goal area.
A nine-point cushion was a more than satisfactory lead all the same given the absence of wind or rain and, with Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Sean O’Brien and a powerful front row in the shape of Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore to spring from the bench.
That last trio was ushered on after just 47 minutes, along with lock Tom Denton. Madigan had already slotted his fifth penalty by then while Garry Ringrose had added to his burgeoning DVD compilation with a mazy run that sent Nacewa free and almost resulted in a try.
The only surprise was the lack of fight from Bath whose poor handling and drip-drip concession of penalties handicapped their ambitions of rescuing the game and their qualification hopes until Houston trundled over on the hour a couple of messy phases after a five-metre lineout.
Game on? Not quite.
Ford’s errant kick from what was a straightforward conversion attempt left seven still between them and that was doubled within moments when Sean Cronin showed a quick mind and quicker feet to pick up from the floor in the Bath 22 after a succession of phases and dart over.
That was effectively that although Rhys Priestland and Madigan traded late penalties.
Not a bad evening’s work.
Leinster: Zane Kirchner; Isa Nacewa, Garry Ringrose, Ben Te'o, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan, Luke McGrath; Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Josh Van Der Flier, Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: S Cronin for Tracy, J McGrath for Dooley, M Moore for Furlong, and T Denton for McCarthy (all 47); S O’Brien for Murphy (60); E Reddan for L McGrath (67); N Reid for Kirchner (68); J Sexton for Nacewa (75).
Bath: Anthony Watson; Semesa Rokoduguni, Jonathan Joseph, Kyle Eastmond, Matt Banahan; George Ford, Chris Cook; Max Lahiff, Rob Webber, David Wilson, Stuart Hooper, Dom Day, Matt Garvey, Francois Louw, Leroy Houston.
Replacements: Ross Batty for Webber (31-37 and HT); H Thomas for Wilson and D Denton for Louw (both HT); N Auterac for Lahiff (51); C Ewels for Day (54); T Homer for Watson (65); J Evans for Cook and R Priestland for Ford (both 67).
Referee: P Gauzere (France).