Leinster came through a genuine test in beating Bath by three tries to one. Apart from the win, there were a number of encouraging signs, but also an injury to Gordon D’Arcy.
In his post-match interview, Declan Kidney insisted that there was nothing to be getting carried away with, ‘Nothing has happened that wasn’t supposed to happen’ he declared. In other words, home wins are the essential building blocks if you’re going to challenge at all.
But for those that are looking for clues, there were sufficient signs in this three tries to one win to postulate that there will be a more meaningful challenge from Leinster this year than last.
First, the defensive effort bore no relation to that offered up against, for instance, Sale last year in the same venue. Despite the scoreline, there were long periods both before and after half-time, when Leinster were put to the pin of their collar, but had the neck to come through unscathed.
Second, the pack in general fronted up against one of the most ornery units around. For the first hour, this match reminded one of Ireland v Argentina in the World Cup, with Bath adopting the same muscular approach, taking Leinster on around the fringes and sending big runners, especially Zak Feaunati and Mike Tindall, up the middle. But the Leinster set pieces, while under pressure, produced enough ball to allow Leinster to clear their lines and occasionally, look threatening when moving ball wide.
And, ultimately, that’s where Leinster won the match. The backline simply had too much class for Bath, who were afflicted with injuries denuding them of Lee Best at fullback, and Brendon Daniel, who cried off just before kick-off. Robbie Fleck retired injured after just 18 minutes.
But the real bonus in this performance was that of David Holwell, who deservedly won the Man of the Match award. His placekicking was dependable, and included a bonus 50 metre kick from an angle at a critical juncture. His tackling was brave and committed, including one terrific hit on Tindall. His decision-making was good and he exuded an air of calm and maturity, which is precisely what one feels is required for this side. Hell’s bells, he even threw in a clean line break at one point.
Bath started the better of the two, playing the first five minutes in the Leinster half. But their difficulties were clear when O’Driscoll made a slashing break on 6 minutes but was unable to link with Horgan, who knocked on.
A double tackle on Bath winger Higgins was the precursor to Holwell’s first successful penalty on 10 minutes from wide on the right, via both post and crossbar. A Miller knock-on off the restart though coughed up an offside and opportunity for Barkley to level, but he pulled it wide. He made amends on 19 minutes, though, when Leinster were penalised for their part in a dust-up following a Holwell tackle on Tindall.
Leinster got some continuity and width to their game and looked threatening when they did so. Question was, could they do it often enough. They looked like they’d cracked it on 25 minutes when Hickie edged ahead of Gordon D’Arcy as Leinster’s leading Heineken try-scorer with his 14th in the competition. It started with a good win of an overthrown lineout by Shane Jennings, effective again last night. O’Driscoll made sharp progress before feeding Hickie down the left. The in-form winger poured past a half-falling Andrew Higgins before outstripping fullback Chris Malone, who looked like the converted outhalf he is, to score in the corner. A delicious Holwell convert eased Leinster out to 10-3.
But if there was joy there for Hickie, it turned within two minutes. A good high ball by Bath saw both Horgan and the advancing Dempsey get in each other’s way, the ball spilling loose for Crockett to pick up. Still, Hickie looked to have him and his frustration at falling off the tackle was apparent in his punching the turf as Crockett went in on the left for 10-8, Barkley once again pulling the kick.
For the remainder of the half, Bath looked the more likely. A neat Barkley grubber had Dempsey in trouble and Leinster had to defend desperately. However, crucially, they survived through several 5 metre scrums and held Bath up over the line on one occasion, Cullen making a big defensive hit. The pressure was relieved when Duncan Bell was penalised for driving in. This was an area where Nigel Williams intervened on Leinster’s behalf a number of times. The substitution of Bell for Matt Stevens only exacerbated the problem for Bath.
The lead intact, Leinster started the second half brightly and the 15,000 crowd got involved when Tindall took Dempsey out in the air.
A little extra breathing room came with an opportunistic D’Arcy drop goal from just inside the ten metre line that brought it to 13-8, but this was cancelled out by a slightly harsh Barkley penalty for a pinned Holwell not rolling away.
The five point margin was restored when Holwell landed a corker from 50 metres after Stevens was penalised.
But Leinster really broke free on 65 minutes when D’Arcy drew level with Hickie as Leinster’s top Heineken tryscorer. Leinster’s best ball all through was off Victor Costello at the tail, enabling Holwell move it wide quickly. On this occasion, an O’Driscoll incision saw him link with Dempsey, who found D’Arcy on the loop. He showed great pace, strength and determination to make it to the corner. Holwell missed for once, but Leinster were home free at 21-11. The price, though, was a groin injury to D’Arcy, who is now rated doubtful for the South Africa match (again).
The icing in the cake was Horgan’s try, which was as cheeky an individual effort as you’ll see. He was initially looking to feed a runner behind the tackle, but nobody arrived. As he wasn’t held on the deck, though, he regained his feet and sprinted away before selling an outrageous dummy to the last defender and gliding over.
Added to a final Holwell penalty, Leinster were now cruising to a win, but still defended their line passionately in the dying minutes, one brilliant tackle by O’Driscoll on Tindall in the corner exemplifying the spirit and perhaps also partially repaying the Englishman for having the nerve to break past the Leinsterman for the crucial score in the Grand Slam ’02 fixture.
Perhaps, as Kidney and Corrigan stressed, it’s nothing to get carried away with. Still, the same two boys would have devoured the hand of anyone that offered it to them in advance.
15: Girvan Dempsey
14: Shane Horgan
13: Brian O’Driscoll
12: Gordon D’Arcy
11: Denis Hickie
10: David Holwell
9: Brian O’Meara
1: Reggie Corrigan (Captain)
2: Shane Byrne
3: Emmett Byrne
4: Malcolm O’Kelly
5: Leo Cullen
6: Eric Miller
7: Shane Jennings
8: Victor Costello
16: Ricky Nebbett (for Byrne, half-time)
17: Gavin Hickie
18: Ben Gissing
19: Aidan McCullen (for Costello, 70 mins)
20: Guy Easterby
21: Felipe Contepomi
22: Gary Brown (for D’Arcy, 64 mins)
15. Chris Malone
14. Andrew Higgins
13. Robbie Fleck
12. Mike Tindall
11. Alex Crockett
10. Olly Barkley
9. Martyn Wood
2.Jonathan Humphreys (capt)
16. Lee Mears
17. Matt Stevens
18. Gareth Delve
19. Rob Fidler
20. James Scraysbrook
21. Nick Walshe
22. Spencer Davey
Referee: Nigel Williams (WRU)