Northampton Saints 10 Leinster 37: Leinster absorbed some potentially crippling injuries and a Saints third quarter revival to bank a crucial bonus-point win over their 14-man hosts in the East Midlands last night and, with it, grab control of their Champions Cup pool.
Leo Cullen’s side lost Joey Carbery, Rob Kearney, and Sean O’Brien to injuries but they had already wrested control back by the time England captain Dylan Hartley was dismissed for a crazy forearm smash on O’Brien.
It was as dumb as they come by the man who had been touted as a potential British and Irish Lions skipper next June and one wondered what his national coach Eddie Jones made of it as he looked on from the bleachers.
Northampton had appeared ripe for the plucking all week.
A difficult season has left them stranded nine places down the ladder in England and, though they approached this European assignment only two points behind the Irish pool leaders, they did so distracted by the George North issue.
The Welsh wing was unavailable last night on the advice of a specialist who examined him three days after he came crashing to the turf — where he lay face down and motionless for a few seconds — against Leicester Tigers.
The fallout has lingered all week.
Leinster arrived in much finer fettle — despite the absence again through injury of ten Jonathan Sexton — sitting second in the Guinness PRO12 and with the likes of Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, and Sean O’Brien all back in harness.
This was still an impressive Saints collection. Head coach Jim Mallinder padded his XV with eight internationals compared to the dozen Leinster managed but the visitors looked to test their fragile confidence early.
Just two minutes lapsed before Garry Ringrose went over for the first try, his angle in support of Rob Kearney paying dividends when his full-back broke the defensive line and fended off lock Michael Paterson.
Isa Nacewa added the two extra with the boot, and then another three from a penalty, but Leinster should have pushed on from there as Ringrose, Kearney again, Luke McGrath, and wing Adam Byrne all ruptured the Saints line in the first half.
Leinster were dominating territory and possession, their efforts in destroying Northampton in the opening two scrums and a penchant for energy-sapping mauls mixing things up nicely and frustrating their hosts.
The one bit of bad news was very bad.
Carbery, filling Sexton’s shirt, emerged from one chapter of play limping badly after damaging his right ankle and, though he tried to carry on for a few minutes, he had to succumb to substitution as the first quarter came to an end.
In came another 21-year old.
Ross Byrne had held the fort while Sexton and Carbery were away with Ireland last month but this was a European debut for the guy, and he handled himself pretty damn decently on just his eighth senior appearance.
Still, Carbery’s exit seemed to inject new belief into the Saints and Leinster did well to restrain them to the one Stephen Meyer penalty before the interval after a long period of pressure before embarking on one of their own.
Countless phases on or near the home line just before the 40 closed added up to naught, however and a Sean O’Brien try was rubbed out after the TMO spied a knock-on in the wake of a lucky kick that rebounded back to him.
Leinster’s ill-fortune magnified on the start. First Kearney, just back from a concussion sabbatical, walked off three minutes in with no visible injury and then Saints went and drew level.
It was a prolonged period of pressure that did it, ex-Munster man JJ Hanrahan inflicting the damage with a clean break to take him just in front of the posts Ahsee Tuala twisted the knife when released wide on the right.
Leinster a year ago may have caved but this is a different vintage and the response was superb. Nacewa regained the lead with another penalty and then a simple line out and maul inside the opposition 22 set O’Brien up to go over again.
Legitimately this time.
Then Hartley, not long off the bench after his Test exertions, did his thing.
O’Brien followed him off after the blow, adding to Leinster’s casualty station, but they closed the game out in style with Rory O’Loughlin, Jamison Gibson-Park and Nacewa claiming tries three, four and five.
Not quite the 40-7 scoreline they managed here three years back but just as impressive all the same. The immediate task now is avoiding a repeat of 2013 when Northampton mugged them in Dublin a week later.
Tries: Tuala. Cons: Myler. Pens: Myler.
Foden, K. Pisi, Burrell, Hanrahan, Elliott, Myler, Groom, A. Waller, Haywood, Hill, Paterson, Lawes, Gibson, Wood, Picamoles. Replacements: G. Pisi for Hanrahan (65), Tuala for Elliott (25), Kessell for Groom (69), E. Waller for A. Waller (62), Hartley for Haywood (52), Denman for Hill (66), Ratuniyarawa for Paterson (58), Harrison for Picamoles (58).
Tries: G. Ringrose, O’Brien, O’Loughlin, Gibson-Park, Nacewa. Cons: Nacewa 3. Pens: Nacewa 2.
R. Kearney, A. Byrne, G. Ringrose, Henshaw, Nacewa, Carbery, L. McGrath, J. McGrath, Cronin, Furlong, Toner, Triggs, O’Brien, van der Flier, Heaslip.
O’Loughlin for R. Kearney (43), R. Byrne for Carbery (16), Gibson-Park for L. McGrath (68), Healy for J. McGrath (59), Tracy for Cronin (59), Bent for Furlong (65), Ruddock for Triggs (52), Conan for O’Brien (58).
Jerome Garces (France).
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