Leinster 60 Northampton Saints 13: The number of blue Santa hats and woeful Christmas jumpers was well down on previous years but Leinster got in on the Christmas theme on Saturday with a nine-try turkey shoot against an obliging Northampton that leaves them in prime position in Pool 4.
Little enough can be learned from nights like it.
Leo Cullen tried to talk up the benefits - how the Saints put it up to his side during a first quarter when Ken Pisi’s 95-metre intercept try built an unlikely 13-5 lead for the struggling visitors - but all it did was square his lads to the job at hand and cut out the sloppiness.
Northampton, all but out of Europe already and languishing down in ninth on the English ladder, put out a B team and paid for it. Jim Mallinder denied that afterwards but, with his best players rested or suspended, what was left was a scratch lot betrayed by the circumstances and their own body language.
The lowest of the low came when the same Pisi spilled a routine cross-kick in his own goal area and Isa Nacewa pounced for the ninth try. It confirmed Northampton’s biggest ever European defeat and their heaviest under Mallinder. For Leinster it was their second largest European victory.
It was all very embarrassing.
Step back from the campaign after four rounds, though, and a discernible picture is emerging of a Leinster side far removed from the gloom and introspection of twelve months ago when they approached the Christmas on the back of four European defeats.
The province managed just six tries in their half-dozen pool fixtures last season. They have 20 recorded with two rounds still to go this time around and there is a clear sense that the meat and spuds nature of their attacking game back then has been supplemented with a little sauce.
Garry Ringrose’s emergence as a midfield tyro has been a key turning point. His ability to jink and thieve an extra few yards is precious and so too the ability to wrestle his arms and the ball free in the tackle and pop the offload.
The players and coaches have spoken about that. About how they need to profit from this potential largesse and the moment that summed up the club’s rekindled ambition best came when Sean Cronin zoomed past Ringrose’s shoulder, collected the offload and sashayed past the full-back.
“It has been driven down from the coaches that you’re not going to get hung on a Monday if you’re looking to push the pass or push the offload,” Cronin explained. “Obviously, a level of common sense has to come with the fact that you’re not to do anything stupid.
“They’ve given a bit of freedom this year and it seems to be working well. You can see those young guys are coming out with their chests puffed out and they’re willing to do it. It’s kind of got the older guys, the more experienced guys, going ‘this is a nice way to play’.”
Ross Byrne was composed and capable yet again in the absence of Jonathan Sexton, Joey Carbery and Cathal Marsh while Luke McGrath’s graph is improving at a pace that suggests he could some day emerge as the sort of capable understudy to Conor Murray that Ireland so badly need.
Luke McGrath, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin and Tadhg Furlomg claimed five of the tries between them. Four men with an average age short of 23. Leinster will continue to lean on that youth and promise. They may have to.
Cullen was characteristically vague when asked about the well-being of players such as Jonathan Sexton (hamstrings) and Rob Kearney (ankle) which means men like Ross Byrne and Adam Byrne will likely get to prolong formative runs in the first XV against Munster this day next week.
The influx of new blood has been transformative.
Ten of the 23 that featured here were either academy wannabees like Josh van der Flier or Rory O’Loughlin, or the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park who were plying the trade in other parts, as recently as just 24 months ago.
“I can just see the way the squad has evolved in terms of lots of young guys coming through,” said Cronin who was one of the nine vets with over a hundred caps in the ranks on Saturday.
“That’s driven the quality in training and guys pushing each other.
“Ross Byrne came in there and played fantastic, I thought, in a massive European game. They just seem to handle the pressure really well.
“That has been the biggest aspect, young guys coming in and putting pressure on standards and on the older guys.”
Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; R Byrne, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; H Triggs, D Toner; S O’Brien, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.
C Healy for J McGrath, J Tracy for Cronin and M Bent for Furlong (all 48); R O’Loughlin for A Byrne (51); R Ruddock for Toner (53); J Conan for O’Brien (56); J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (59); N Reid for Ringrose (64); J McGrath for Healy (HIA, 78).
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS :
A Tuala; K Pisis, G Pisi, JJ Hanrahan, T Collins; S Meyler, N Groom; E Waller, C Clare, K Brookes; A Ratuniyarawa, J Craig; J Gibson, C Clark, T Harrison.
J Wilson for Tuala (24); R Hutchinson for G Pisi and B Nutley for Clark (both HT); P Hill for Brookes and M Paterson for Clare (both 52); J Fish for Clare (63); A Waller for E Waller (66); T Kessell for Collins (73);
R Poite (FFR).
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