Leinster coughed up two tries and 14 points inside 12 minutes and Cheika has promised an enquiry: “I’m very happy with the win but I still can’t quite get the first 20 minutes out of my head,” he admitted.
“In normal circumstances,” he said, “you can’t give quality teams like that the type of start we gave them. We only won because we showed a lot of courage, fight and grit to stay in it.
“We’ve got to take it in context; in terms of how important it was for us to win in relation to the squad we had available, but we can’t ignore that first 20 minutes,” he added.
He insisted defence will be given the highest priority when Leinster resume training this week: “It was clear that we didn’t defend too well in those early minutes. I was actually quite calm when we fell 14 points behind because my only concern was to try to find ways of overcoming that gap. When it got to 17-16, I was in a bit more of a panic situation because it was so close.
Holding top spot in the league still hasn’t convinced Cheika that Leinster are the finished article. “We’re where we want to be; it’s good, but we’re striving to be the best and that means putting in consistently good performances over the 80, maybe 90, minutes of every game.”
Leinster did their best to dig their own graves in the early stages. The first try came from flanker Maama Militiki and it was converted by Ben Blair, who also added the points to a breakaway score from Nick McLeod.
Leinster hit back with a penalty from Contepomi, and they crept closer with a try from centre Michel Berne, the result of a huge six minute effort by the home pack. Contepomi converted brilliantly from the left hand touchline to put his side within touching distance, although Ben Blair kicked the second of two penalty chances before the break to leave the score at 17-10.
It got slightly better for Leinster when Contepomi kicked the second of two penalty opportunities early in the second half and Cardiff captain Xavier Rush was warned about the conduct of two of his forwards in a ruck immediately afterwards. Eventually the visitors were reduced to 14 when Militiki was shown yellow for another infringement.
Then Leinster turned on the heat. Contepomi brilliantly kicked the resultant penalty to reduce the gap to just a single point and he then went one better by kicking his side into 19-17 lead with another penalty 14 minutes from the end.
Cardiff launched a late offensive as Leinster took their usual stress break. Firm defence held the key to their survival before an injury time assault yielded a try for the impressive Luke Fitzgerald.
It didn’t matter for Cardiff, who still managed to escape with a losing bonus point, but it was a last minute boost to Leinster’s confidence.
The next round of games, he stressed, will be crucial. “Munster must go to Cardiff and that will be a big one, while we will be tested against Connacht, who won’t roll over easily,” he admitted.
B. Blair, J. Roberts, J. Robinson, G. Thomas, T. James, N. MacLeod, J. Spice, J. Yapp, G. Williams, T. Tauf’au, S. Morgan, P. Tito, M. Molitika, X. Rush, R. Sowden-Taylor.
L.Fitzgerald, S. Horgan, C. Warner, M. Berne, G. Brown, F. Contepomi, C. Whitaker, C. Healy, O. Le Roux, S. Wright, T. Hogan, L. Cullen (captain), C. Jowitt. Keogh, K. Gleeson.
K. McLaughlin for Cullen (injured, 36), B. Blaney for Healy (injured, 37)
P. Allen (Scotland).