Talk of a Leinster rebirth is simplistic at best, but Leo Cullen’s decision to put out what was the most inexperienced Leinster XV for a European tie in an eternity – ever, maybe? — paid the most handsome of dividends.
How callow were they? Well, consider this: Leinster have 26 Ireland internationals on their books. A dozen of them, boasting a collective 889 caps, were either unavailable or given a weekend’s pass. Another eight, totalling 317 Test appearances, started on the bench.
That left half-a-dozen starters with international experience in a green shirt and they with just 79 caps between them. Helping them guide the six greenhorns featuring from the off in Europe for the first time were Isa Nacewa, Zane Kirchner and Ben Te’o.
We say ‘guide’ but they didn’t need much in the way of direction.
A rookie front row of Peter Dooley, James Tracy and Tadhg Furlong soldiered brilliantly for 47 minutes and coped easily enough in the tight, where there was a distinct lack of scrums, while contributing on the deck and in the loose. Tracy was particularly good, building on earlier encouraging performances this season with an all-round display topped by a blinding bit of skill when he combined with Nacewa down the wing to help send the Kiwi into open prairie.
Ross Molony took the man of the match award for his shift in the second row, his revelation afterwards that the 2009 Heineken Cup final is his earliest Leinster memory that springs to mind making everyone else feel very old and accentuating just how young this crop is.
Luke McGrath, finally free of the injuries which have held him back in recent months, kept the supply chain moving swiftly at nine while Garry Ringrose continued to live up the hype with some standout contributions at 13.
The 25-11 scoreline didn’t flatter them. If anything it reflected a game in which Leinster had 63% possession, 69% territory and one in which they were so much better than Bath in any number of areas.
Carries, metres made, line breaks, defenders beaten, offloads, rucks/mauls won: Leinster amassed in and around twice as many as the visitors and this was, let’s not forget, a moneyed Bath side still in with a shot of making the knockout stages.
Leinster won the collisions, they played smart attacking and direct rugby and they pressured Bath into giving away silly penalties which allowed Ian Madigan kick 15 points from penalties.
The concession of 13 penalties could and should have hurt more and their inability to cross the try line until Sean Cronin did it in the final quarter – a common refrain this season — was frustrating given all that possession and territory and it allowed Bath stay in the frame.
So much so that the English side closed to within seven points when No.8 Leroy Houston trundled over on the hour and yet, all things considered, it went off like a dream for Cullen who admitted to nerves in the build-up to the game.
“I was really nervous this week. Not because I don’t believe in those guys, but because I want them to do well. I was as nervous as I’ve ever been,” he laughed. “I felt like it was my debut game for Leinster. But I was delighted for those guys.”
Just as pleasing will be the performances of some among the older brigade. Nacewa, Kirchner and Te’o, all of whom will carry the burden of responsibility when Leinster’s considerable Ireland contingent splits for the Six Nations, looked sharp and on point. It was during that period last year, when they won just once, lost twice and drew twice again, that Leinster’s Guinness PRO12 play-offs hopes turned sour and lumped them into this European pool of death. Cullen knows they have to “manage that period better” than they did then.
The signs here all suggested that they will. And there was encouragement for Joe Schmidt, too. Dave Kearney produced an excellent display on the wing after some less than satisfactory showings since his return from the World Cup while Rhys Ruddock was in the sort of form that must propel him to within a whisker of a starting slot against Wales next month.
All in all, then, not a bad evening’s work. Not for a dead rubber.
Z Kirchner; I Nacewa, G Ringrose, B Te’o, D Kearney; I Madigan, L McGrath; P Dooley, J Tracy, T Furlong, R Molony, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, J Van Der Flier, J Murphy.
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).
A Watson; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford, C Cook; M Lahiff, R Webber, D Wilson, S Hooper, D Day, M Garvey, F Louw, L Houston.
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).
P Gauzere (France).