It’s been a rocky road the Dublin-based province has travelled this season, but Leinster appear to be finding form and fitness at an opportune time as they look to next weekend’s vital pool game against Wasps in Coventry.
Players and coaches have gone on record time and again this last few months to defend performances rather than results, a ridiculous casualty list has been pinpointed as a chief culprit and declarations made that better was to come.
Improved displays against Ulster and Cardiff earlier this month lent weight to those assertions and Matt O’Connor’s side delivered their best yet in pouncing for seven tries against an admittedly half-hearted Castres side two days ago.
If the opposition’s disinterest dilutes that feel-good factor somewhat, it is still worth remembering the double-digit injury list Leinster bore — and the convincing loss suffered to Munster two weeks earlier — when they last prepared to face Wasps in October.
They are clearly in a much better place now.
“We said it at the time, and no-one wanted to write it then, we had a distinct plan of what we wanted to achieve out of rounds one and two,” said O’Connor. “We thought it was really important to make sure we got two wins given the way the squad and the group was. From that end, we weren’t overly disappointed with what we got out of the first two games. We’ve (now) got a lot of blokes back, another 14-15 games under our belt, so from that end there’s a hell of a lot of training time and game minutes we can call on in Coventry.”
He neglected to confirm if they will be able to call on Cian Healy or Sean O’Brien for the first time in months, but Leinster’s injury epidemic is finally shrinking to manageable proportions and their form has reflected that. Not that they were perfect on Saturday.
Seven handling errors inside the first quarter served to keep Castres interested ~despite Dave Kearney’s opening try after less than three minutes and the home side’s game management was open to question as well. On at least three early occasions they spurned an easy three points in favour of kicks to the corner for no ultimate reward though further tries from Marty Moore, Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin still meant the bonus point was earned and the win sealed by the break.
With the scrum solid and the lineout more consistent, Leinster had the ideal base to do damage and the bench did their bit with another trio of tries from Tadhg Furlong, Darragh Fanning and Luke McGrath decorating the second-half.
The commitment to run the ball from all areas made for a carnival atmosphere at the RDS, with none of the carping that has accompanied much of Leinster’s play this term.
It was all allied with an intent and an intensity that bore comparisons to the steely and sublime Leinster side under Joe Schmidt, something O’Connor’s troops have managed only a handful of times this past season-and-a-half.
“It is certainly the most intense we have gone into a game this year with relation to putting the opposition under pressure with ball in play and ball in hand and we got the reward because of the circumstances,” said the Australian.
“Maybe there is a learning in it for us in that maybe we need to approach it a little more like that. Given the confidence we have built and the combinations we have got, moving forward, there is no reason why we cannot have that intent every week.”
Again, a Wasps side flush from their excellent defeat of Harlequins in London will ask far more questions than a Castres outfit for whom Romain Martial touched down with a consolation try ten minutes from the end.
The recent move from Adams Park to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena has clearly energised the English side and the wider expanse of grass in their new digs will likely suit the likes of Christian Wade, Elliott Daly and Tom Varndell.
“The big picture with the wide open spaces wouldn’t be a negative for them and it’s certainly not a negative for us,” said O’Connor, “so I certainly think you’ll see a lot more rugby played there than you would have if the fixture had been played in Adams Park.”
It could hardly be more delicately poised.
LEINSTER: R Kearney (D Fanning, 68); F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, I Madigan, D Kearney; J Gopperth (G D’Arcy, 63), E Reddan (L McGrath, 58); M Bent (J Hagan, 51), S Cronin (R Strauss, 51), M Moore (T Furlong, 51); D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas, 63); J Conan, J Murphy, J Heaslip (D Ryan, 51).
CASTRES: J Dumora; R Martial, T Combezou, R Cabannes (R Tales, 59), M Garvey (S Dupont, 67); D Kirkpatrick (R Grosso, 60), R Kockott; S Taumoepeau (P Fa’anunu, 59), M-A Rallier (M Bonnelle, 59), R Herrera (Y Montes, 59); R Gray, C Samson; I Diarra, J Bornman (P Faasalele, 50), J Beattie (B Desroches, 50).
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy).