Friday, 10 April 2015

Champions Cup Review - Leinster 18 - 12 Bath

Going to Dublin for a Heineken Cup quarter finals holds fond memories for me - well, of the few that I've returned.  As a spotty, greasy 17 year old, I headed over with 4 mates to watch Leicester soundly defeat Leinster in their own backyard, before going out on the town and finding some poor unsuspecting local lady to attempt to woo.  Siobhan, I'm sorry for ruining your night.  Of course, at the time I had no idea what an occasion I've just witnessed - beating the Irish giants in the capital in a knockout game is not something that happens very often.  At all.  And though Bath went there on Saturday with real hope that they might be able to utilise their young talent to conjure a win, did they really believe it would happen?

The opening exchanges proved fast and furious but with little pattern as Leinster relied on fly-half Jimmy Gopperth's boot, while Bath provided early counter-attacking threats via Watson and centre Kyle Eastmond. Heaslip then went close himself to touching down near the Bath posts, but, despite the visitors denying him, they conceded a penalty and Madigan kicked Leinster 3-0 ahead.

But Bath were not to be denied and they stormed back up field through a typically bustling run from Horacio Agulla, and then the equeally brutish Francois Louw, whose powerful break meant that Leinster resorted to illegal means in an attempt to stop him. French referee Jerome Garces expertly played advantage, though, and Ford conjured a try out of nothing, leaving Leinster's defence leaden-footed as he sliced through an inviting gap he created with dummy before he scooted past Rob Kearney to dive over.  Say it quietly, but there is something of the 'Dan Carter' about him when he's on form.
His conversion attempt hit the post, yet Leinster responded rapidly as Madigan booted a second penalty before Bath had Watson sin-binned when he took out opposite number Kearney in mid-air, leaving Garces with little option but to brandish a yellow card. Bath had to tighten up their discipline and Madigan did not require a second invitation to keep punishing them as he completed his penalty hat-trick.
Bath, though, did not learn their lesson, and two more Madigan penalties opened up a 15-5 interval advantage that meant the visitors had a mountain to climb one that would prove too steep.

Leinster, though, suffered an injury blow within a minute of the second period getting under way as wing Fergus McFadden was helped from the pitch after his head made contact with Eastmond's shoulder. South African Zane Kirchner replaced him - not a bad bloke to bring on really.
Bath's best attacking moments continued to be provided by Ford, and he came up trumps again after 48 minutes as another break between Devin Toner and Cian Healy took him close to Leinster's line before he found Hooper in support to claim a well-worked try. Ford's successful conversion brought Bath back to just three points adrift, but Madigan's sixth successful penalty gave Leinster a hint of breathing space.  On the whole though, Bath were looking more threatening with the ball in hand and, now they had tightened up their discipline, they looked the better side.
Watson then launched another thrilling break from deep inside his own 22, only for wing Horacio Agulla to drop Ford's pass when the Leinster defence was stretched to breaking point. Bath continued to press, but the hosts were in no mood to surrender, defending with brutal physicality around the fringes and scrambling well to chop down dangerman Jonathan Joseph at every opportunity. 
A Ford penalty six minutes from time gave Bath renewed hope, and then they surged towards the line for one last assault, or at least a penalty or drop-goal to force the game into extra time.  During the ruck exchanges Leinster were, in truth, very lucky not to be penalised for hands in the ruck on several occasions, but Jerome Garces eventually called time on Bath's brave campaign by penalising Matt Garvey for a borderline side entry.  Leinster were in the semi-finals again - where they belong.

The odd thing was that Bath looked busy and inventive, whilst the hosts didn't seem to have to do too much for their win.  However, Leinster are a mirror-image of the Championship-winning Irish team; they are no longer the 'moral' winners who play beautiful rugby but come up short, they are the hard-nosed, ruthless and infuriatingly well-disciplined machine that churns out wins in big games. And that is all that matters.

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