Leinster’s kids are more than just alright, but we knew that long before Saturday night.
Leo Cullen’s ‘B’ team scored six tries and conceded just the one against a reserve Ulster selection but it was forgettable fare that failed to fill the stomach in much the same way as the candy floss being flogged across Simmonscourt Road at Winter Funderland.
This was sport’s version of a mildly diverting trailer before the box-office smash. A pregnant pause filled mostly by callow up-and-comers — 18 of whom have played U20s for Ireland this past three seasons — before the provinces face French opposition in Europe.
Conor O’Brien disappeared into the night with the man-of-the-match award, Ciaran Frawley bagged an impressive 80 minutes at 10 and, to be fair, the list of players to benefit from this experience won’t have been confined to the boys in blue.
Shipping six tries amounts to a whole heap of lessons, after all. Sean Cronin, 32 years young, bagged the first two. The remainder of the damage was done by O’Brien, Andrew Porter, Jamison Gibson-Park and a last-ditch penalty try.
Adam McBurney pitched in with Ulster’s converted five-pointer.
Job done for a Leinster side that now sits 19 points clear of their closest challengers in Conference B and one which had the luxury of resting close to a starting team full of internationals ahead of what could be an epic encounter with Toulouse in five days’ time.
“We’ve had a good training week whereas the previous week was a poor one for a variety of reasons,” said head coach Leo Cullen. “Some guys have had time off. They’ve been managed and it’s important they freshen up over the course of a long season.”
Cullen described this period as a “tricky one”, as a spell with a lot of moving parts, but Leinster have proven adept at maximising their resources and the prep done by those Test stars held back for this one has been better than it was prior to the last block of Euro ties.
Irish involvement in November complicated matters in December and that fed into a stuttering performance in Bath where they were fortunate to win. Those same players have been wearing blue now for five weeks and counting.
Just as well, given what’s coming.
Cullen is to be believed when he suggests the French side is a better version now than the one which edged them by a point over there in October. They are, after all, undefeated in a dozen games between Top 14 and Europe stretching back to September.
Six of those games have been on the road where their record is won five, drawn one. The stalemate was in Clermont a fortnight back when they rotated heavily and yet still dragged themselves back to parity from a deficit of 17-13.
The return to duty post-injury of Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath will help in that regard and Cullen didn’t discount the prospect that someone like Conor O’Brien might find his name added to the European squad when that deadline expires tomorrow.
All hands will be required for a game against a side that, like them, is chasing a record fifth European Cup this term and in a game that Leinster will likely have to win to claim top billing in Pool One and the home quarter-final berth that should come with it. It is, in a way, a corner into which they have backed themselves.
Cullen admitted on Saturday — not for the first time — that their defeat in Toulouse three months ago was a seminal moment for an opponent playing its first home game in the competition since its ‘relegation’ to the Challenge Cup the season before.
The atmosphere in Stade Ernest-Wallon that day has stayed with him, not least the outpouring of joy and exuberance that met the final whistle after a game in which Leinster had started slowly, regained control and held the lead before then letting it slip again.
Ultimately, it was an intercept try from Maxime Medard 12 minutes from time that decided matters then. Toulouse tend to welcome chaos and it isn’t as if Leinster haven’t learned similar lessons of late when it comes to loose play.
It was another intercept try, for Keith Earls, which decided their meeting with Munster nine days ago and Cullen was clearly disappointed with the dip in standards here against Ulster after the interval and a far more clinical first-half.
“They can create something out of nothing. Suddenly you’re chasing the game again but we lost our way and we had no way of getting back in control of the game. So we have to make sure we are in control of the game. And not feed them these opportunities.”
It may well be epic.
Did it? Really? Leinster were already out of sight at the top of Conference B and their lead extended by a point on the back of the weekend’s games. Ulster never looked like pushing them here, even when they closed the gap to 14-7.
Leinster used to send weakened sides to the other provinces, now they field second strings on their own patch and still win. That’s Connacht and Ulster dispatched with the ‘kids’ now. The strength in depth is astonishing in the capital.
There was plenty of grumbling about the diluted nature of the two teams in the RDS press box but perspective is a fine thing: over 18,000 packed into the arena to take it all in while the Welsh derbies, with far more first-choice players, across the water, were played out in front of the usual patchy crowds.
Leinster’s first-half execution was seriously impressive for a side featuring so many youngsters and Ciaran Frawley was central to that at 10. The out-half directed everything with authority and on the back of a pack that was dictating everything and presenting front-foot ball.
Best on show
That’s four tries in seven appearances this season now for Conor O’Brien who is still a member of the Leinster academy but has featured in all three of the interpros over the festive period. He plays 12 and 13 too. What a prospect.
Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath both came through their respective returns to action after injury while Dan McFarland was optimistic on the chances of Ulster having Jacob Stockdale – absent since mid-December – available for their clash with Racing 92.
Straightforward evening for Andrew Brace who didn’t have to reach for a card of either colour in a game between two rivals which, one minor scuffle in the second-half aside, passed off with an absence of unnecessary fireworks.
Leinster face Toulouse here next Saturday at the RDS in a Heineken Champions Cup game which is likely to decide who tops Pool 1. Ulster play host to Racing 92 in a crucial Pool 4 clash at the Kingspan Stadium later that evening.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; A Byrne, C O’Brien, N Reid, B Daly; C Frawley, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, S Cronin, A Porter; R Molony, M Kearney; J Murphy, S Penny, M Deegan.
Replacements: J Tracy for Cronin, E Byrne for McGrath and M Bent for Porter (all 51); H O’Sullivan for Gibson-Park, C Doris for Murphy and J O’Brien for Kearney (all 63); O Dowling for Molony (69).
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Lyttle, D Cave, J Hume, A Kernohan; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; K McCall, A McBurney, W Herbst; M Dalton, A O’Connor; G Jones, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: P Nelson for Lowry (HIA, 18); J Andrew for McBurney (blood, 33-HT); T O’Toole for Herbst (HT); A Warwick for McCall and B Houston for Kernohan (both 49); J Andrew for McBurney (51); C Ross for Reidy (58); C Montgomery for O’Connor (68); J Stewart for Shanahan (72).
Referee: A Brace (IRFU).