Majestic Blues must now finish job

Northampton 7 Leinster 40
With their side trailing 26-0 at the break, a section of Northampton Saints supporters in front of the Franklin’s Gardens press box gave a half-hearted cheer as their side came out for the second half.

Though they hoped for a second-half comeback in the manner of Leinster’s against them in that epic 2011 Heineken Cup final, the game was already up. And just to remind them, as the cheers faded, a Dublin accent piped up and in measured tones said: “I hear Leinster improve in the second half.”

Poor, shambolic Saints, the punishment was as relentless and sustained off the field as it was on it. And the way Northampton’s players slunk off at the final whistle, a further two tries conceded to complete the humiliation on their beloved home turf, you genuinely fear for the worst when they come over to Dublin for Saturday’s return Heineken Cup Pool 1 fixture at the Aviva Stadium.

As for Leinster, their task this week is to forget this scintillating and at times breathtaking attacking performance inflicted on the English title chasers and keep their minds focused on the campaign to secure a home quarter-final berth.

After this six-try demolition, Matt O’Connor’s side are now sitting pretty at the top of the pool, unbeaten in three rounds and five points clear of Castres with half the games completed. Yet it will all be for nought if they take a foot off the accelerator and allow a wounded and embarrassed Saints side to exact vengeance this weekend.

Director of rugby Jim Mallinder spoke of the loss as his most disappointing moment since joining Northampton in 2007, while their England back-rower Tom Wood said he was ashamed and embarrassed. Yet as bad as Northampton were at the weekend, former Leicester Tigers head coach O’Connor knows his former east midlands rivals can be so much better than they appeared this time around.

“They are a proud team, a successful club,” O’Connor said. “They will come to Dublin next week to put on a show.”

The Australian trusts his players, though, not to take their boots off the neck of this wounded beast. They stayed focused throughout the 80 minutes at Franklin’s Gardens, even having secured a bonus point as early as the 37th minute when Eoin Reddan sniped at the edge of a ruck on the Northampton 22 and darted under the posts for Leinster’s fourth try. And O’Connor expects his squad to keep the pressure on and finish the job this weekend.

“They are a humble group. They know what it takes to win competitions. They know it is nowhere near done. There is a lot of work to do. We have given ourselves the opportunity to push forward and potentially look at a home quarter-final if we get out of the group, which is a huge carrot for us.

“We’ve got to keep playing at that level, we’ve got to keep getting better, there are loads of things to work on.”

What a level it is to sustain. Leinster were quite magnificent in punishing sloppy Northampton play,every bit of it, right from the first whistle. If their semi-final win over Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux in 2012 represented the high water mark of all-round team play and resilience against a similarly talented team, this was a display of attacking brilliance unleashed for the first time since the previous season’s second-half final comeback at the Millennium Stadium.

Not for the 100th time, Brian O’Driscoll was at the heart of it all, the ageing warrior summoning all his powers once more to create the opening two tries, both for Luke Fitzgerald, score another and marshall the defensive effort when Saints finally got some semblance of their act together midway through the second half.

Leinster had been forced to make a late change to their starting line-up after loosehead prop Cian Healy suffered a thigh injury in training, yet with Jack McGrath in off the bench, Leinster still fielded a team of 15 Ireland caps, the first time a complete side of internationals from the same country has played in a Heineken Cup game since Cardiff’s all-Wales 15 in 1996-97.

Yet while Leinster transitioned seamlessly, Saints lost full-back James Wilson in the warm-up, forcing Ken Pisi off his wing to cover and the switch did him no favours as Leinster immediately spotted a weak link and Northampton found another department to be second-best in.

The Samoan failed to hold an early Ian Madigan aerial bomb and handed Leinster a scrum inside the Saints 22. The visitors moved it quickly, O’Driscoll stabbing the ball into the left corner with a perfectly weighted kick. Fitzgerald looked to have lost the chase to Pisi, but the misery continued for the Saint as he misread the bounce and the Irish wing flew in behind him for the opening try after just three minutes.

Northampton is about as far inland as you can get in England but they were all at sea here as Leinster continued to pile on the pressure, winning turnover ball as Pisi went into contact near halfway. Within moments, Leinster were another try to the good, stretching Northampton left and right and O’Driscoll keeping the move alive with a brilliant scoop of a low pass through his legs to Rob Kearney, who sent in Fitzgerald for his second, 12-0 after eight minutes.

Leinster were running riot with captain Jamie Heaslip and Reddan’s effort before half-time, O’Driscoll after it before Saints avoided a whitewash through a Lee Dickson try in the 67th minute, converted by Stephen Myler.

There was still time for Fitzgerald to collect his hat-trick, O’Driscoll to be named man of the match and for the Leinster fans in their blue Santa hats to start the Christmas celebrations early. They deserved to party, but O’Connor will keep the champagne on ice just a little longer. There is still a way to go in search of a fourth Heineken Cup.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: K Pisi; J Elliott (T Collins, 72), D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler (G Dickson, 68), L Dickson (R Glynn, 68); A Waller (E Waller, 58), D Hartley (capt) (M Haywood, 58), T Mercey (G Denman, 33-34, 61); Samu Manoa, C Lawes; T Wood, P Dowson (C Clark, 58), S Dickinson (C Day, 41).

LEINSTER: R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner, 54), B O’Driscoll (J Gopperth, 71), G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan (J Cooney, 64); J McGrath (M Bent, 64), S Cronin (A Dundon, 56), M Ross (M Moore, 56); D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen, 61); R Ruddock (J McGrath 73-77), S O’Brien (S Jennings, 32), J Heaslip (capt).

Yellow card: Bent 67-77.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).


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