Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor was relieved to see his side edge out Bath 18-15 this afternoon to reach the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup. Captain Jamie Heaslip said it was ‘right up there with the internationals’ as ‘one of the fastest, toughest games we’ve played all season’.
Six penalty goals from man-of-the-match Ian Madigan secured a tight victory for the hosts at the Aviva Stadium, but Leinster’s inaccuracies in the final 20 minutes of the game kept Bath in contention right to the finish.
Despite leaking a try in each half to George Ford and Bath captain Stuart Hooper, Matt O’Connor felt his Leinster charges did an effective job in nullify the visitors’ chief attacking threats.
Giving his reaction afterwards, he said: “You’re always relieved when you win a knockout game. It was always going to be tough, it was going to be hard-fought and they’ve got some tremendous threat on the ball. George Ford was pretty dangerous when he got opportunities.
“When you’ve got guys like (Anthony) Watson, (Horacio) Agulla, (Matt) Banahan, (Jonathan) Joseph and (Kyle) Eastmond outside him, it is going to be a tough afternoon defensively which I thought we did a pretty good job, by and large, for most of the game.”
Leinster led 15-5 at the break and while they dominated at scrum time with a 100% return, errors elsewhere allowed Bath to close the gap on the scoreboard. A 75% tackle success rate, loose kicking out of hand and two lost lineouts saw Leinster lose their way slightly. Bath clawed their way back to within three points, but could not break down the province’s defence one last time.
“We were a little bit inaccurate. In the second half we came up with a couple of poor kicks. We missed a lineout, you fall off a number of tackles. Fordy’s scores in the second half brought them right back into it and from that end you are going to have a tough afternoon to close it out.”
“No, definitely not,” admitted O’Connor on whether he would have believed Leinster would win the game with a 75% tackle success rate. However, he was pleased with how they responded, adding: “I thought the scramble, post some of those misses, was really important, but there was never a question that the group wouldn’t work really hard and play for everything.
“A game with such high stakes, there was always going to be a massive display (from us). We’ve got some work to do, no question, but we’ll take the result.”
Leinster had their full contingent of 2015 RBS 6 Nations winners back on board today. Reintegrating them back into the Blues’ set-up in such a short space of time, including the likes of Sean O’Brien who was making only his second provincial appearance of the season, was always going to be a tough ask for those involved.
Their collective performance levels should improve in the coming weeks with some very important GUINNESS PRO12 games on the horizon – only one of which comes before their Champions Cup semi-final away to Toulon or Wasps in two weeks’ time.
O’Connor, whose side travel to the Newport Gwent Dragons next weekend, is unconcerned about their recent lack of training time and game-time together. “We’ve got some massive, massive games (coming up) and that brings out the character, that speeds up the learning and everything that goes with that. So we wouldn’t be worried about that. We’ve just got to make sure we maximise every rep in training and we’re as good as we can be.”
With Leinster currently lying fifth in the race to reach the PRO12 play-offs, skipper Jamie Heaslip knows it is make-or-break time for his side’s season in the next few weeks.
“It’s another massive game,” Heaslip said of the upcoming trip to Rodney Parade. “It’s great at this time of year – it’s just big game after big game. We’re chasing top four (in the league) so the Dragons game is huge and the game after it (the European semi-final) is huge in terms of the club and the group that we have.
“We’ve progressed (since going out in the quarter-finals last year), I suppose, if you want to look at it that way. I think we have a similar type strength in squad.
“Bath caused us some problems and if you make some individual or system errors, they’re going to punish you and that happened twice (with the tries). They were attacking in the last minute of the game and that was a little bit of experience (from us) and a little bit of the lads showing their character (to see out the result).
“I couldn’t be prouder of them. But at the next level, no matter if it’s Wasps or Toulon, we have a massive challenge and we have to improve on today.”