A 39-16 bonus-point win with five tries was a fair reflection of the Irish raiders’ dominance at Rodney Parade and, despite a slow start, they had the upper hand in the forward exchanges, stamping their mark early in the second half.
Leinster scored tries through Jamison Gibson-Park, a penalty score, Jordan Larmour, Dan Leavy and Cathal Marsh, while out-half Ross Byrne looked composed from the tee to kick two conversions and two penalties. Dragons were awarded a penalty try of their own and Gavin Henson kicked three penalties.
Cullen said: “I was delighted to get underway with a win because I was a little bit nervous about the game. We’ve struggled here in two of the last three years and we know how difficult a place it is to come. The Dragons are at the start of a new era under Bernard Jackman and I thought they played well. We struggled at times early on and I didn’t think we executed very well on a couple of things, but we ground our way back into the game and scored some nice tries.”
Leinster had fallen behind to an early Henson penalty and Sean Cronin overthrowing his first line-out summed up a scrappy opening to the game.
Byrne then replied for Leinster with three points of his own, before visiting skipper Isa Nacewa created the game’s first try. Playing at centre, Nacewa danced through the Dragons’ defence, was held up, but from the resulting scrum Gibson-Park picked up and dotted down.
The home side felt James Thomas had been blocked on the flank, but the score was given. Byrne converted and then exchanged penalties with Henson to make it 13-6 at the break.
At the start of the second period, Leinster immediately took control of their game. With their international lock pairing of Scott Fardy and Devin Toner to the fore, a driving line-out was sacked by the Dragons and referee Mike Adamson awarded a penalty try and sent home-lock Matthew Screech to the sin bin to boot. The conversion was added automatically and, while Henson kicked his third penalty, another powerful forward surge laid the platform for Larmour’s easy finish.
Byrne missed the conversion, but the game was over and Leavy then added the crucial bonus-point try. Byrne, this time, added the extras to make it 32-9.
The Dragons weren’t helped by losing replacement scrum-half Tavis Knoyle to injury, leaving his fellow substitute Angus O’Brien to step in. They did, though, refuse to go away.
Ashton Hewitt streaked down the left wing and was tackled high by Adam Byrne. Adamson rightly awarded a penalty score, worth seven points automatically under World Rugby’s new laws, and sent right wing Byrne to the bin. Still, there was time for Leinster to have the last laugh, replacement Marsh emerging from a pile of bodies with the ball and converting his own score.
It sealed a Leinster win achieved without their British & Irish Lions stars. Not many teams will be able to cope with their front five and Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath and Sean O’Brien are still to return to the pack.
Captain Nacewa said: “This was just a start for us, but it’s been a long pre-season and we’re feeling pretty positive about this campaign. It’s really exciting to be a part of this young team and playing with guys like Ross Byrne is enjoyable. Centre is a bit unusual for me, but I enjoyed it.
“There are things for us to work on, but we were composed when we needed to be and there was no panic. We’ll look forward to facing Cardiff Blues now.”
Try: penalty 74 Pens: Henson 11, 34, 45
Tries: Gison-Park 23, penalty 42, Larmour 47, Leavy 66, Marsh 76 conv: R Byrne 24, 66; Marsh 77 Pens: R Byrne 17, 40
Kirchner; Hewitt, Morgan, Dixon (O’Brien 54), Amos; Henson, Davies (Knoyle 54, (Rosser 67); Harris (Garrett 54), Dee (Buckley 67), Brown (Fairbrother 50), Screech (Landman 54), Hill (capt), Thomas (Williams 71), Benjamin, Keddie
Kearney; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, Nacewa (capt), Larmour (Daly 67); R Byrne (Marsh 72), Gibson-Park (McCarthy 61); Healy (E Byrne 50), Cronin (Tracy 50), Bent (Porter 50), Toner (Ryan 59), Fardy, Van der Flier, Deegan (Conan 55)
Mike Adamson (SRU)