The old cliché goes that if you can play poorly yet still win, and that is the mark of a champion. In that case bookies may as well just pay out on Leinster becoming the next European champions now because on Saturday they well and truly stunk. Yes, despite coming away with the four points against Castres at the RDS there was very little for the Leinster faithful to feel good about after a game where the Irish side benefitted greatly from French indiscipline more than anything else.
Indeed, there was scarcely an area of Leinster play that could be said to have been without fault at the RDS on Saturday. Set pieces for instance were a particular source of grief with Sean Cronin struggling throughout with crooked lineout throws, often squandering valuable attacking positions. The scrum fared little better as inconsistency plagued it throughout. Again, a large part of the criticism deserves to be levelled at Sean Cronin who, like many hookers this year, has struggled to come to terms with the new scrum mechanics, in particular the re-emphasis on hooking the ball. In one notable scrum five metres out from the Castres line, Cronin’s clumsy boot only managed to kick the ball right back out of the scrum, in turn wasting a rare opportunity to strike from close.
For yet another week, the once potent Leinster back line failed to ignite. The problem seems to be primarily one of distribution, with the chances provided to the three quarters and outside backs being severely limited. In looking for the cause of this, one must look at the hole left by the departure of Johnny Sexton. While Jimmy Gopperth’s boot has certainly been pinpoint accurate for the most part this season, questions still remain over his attacking acumen as a stand-off in the Leinster set up. That said, as far as distribution goes, Gopperth could just as easily shift the blame onto his half back partner in Isaac Boss who, at the very least, deserves the blame for the Castres try when he abandoned his defensive duties behind the scrum leaving Fergus McFadden to deal with Rory Kockott and the sniping Castres back row by himself.
One of the most revealing facts was that for the opening 20 minutes of the second half, the ball nary touched a blade of grass inside the Castres 22 metre line. To Leinster’s credit though, the way they dealt with the unceasing onslaught of French pressure during this period should be praised. The true value of Sean O’Brien and the rest of the Leinster pack was brought to the fore as they disrupted ruck after ruck and denied Castres the quick ball they required for their open attacking style.
Frustration at the lack of progress Castres had managed on the scoreboard considering their dominance may partially explain the madness that was Remi Lamerat’s no armed tackle on Dave Carney. Not only was it a ridiculous lapse in discipline but it was also terribly timed because it coincided with Leinster coming slightly more into the game and inevitably the sin-binning helped to definitively swing the balance in Leinster’s favour, inevitably resulting in the vital try.
As for the try itself, a great deal of praise has to go to Gordon D’Arcy. As mentioned earlier, chances for the back line were fairly few and far between, but with what little possession he did have, he demonstrated that he still possesses a great deal of that magic that made him such a fan favourite over the duration of his tenure in the Leinster first team. As for his contribution to the try, it was only a subtle delay in giving the pass to McFadden for the break, but that slight hesitation was enough to draw in the last Castres defender in turn exposing a broad running lane for McFadden to exploit. It was an easily missed contribution, but it summed up the kind of poise that D’Arcy provides in the Leinster midfield when given the chance.
It was a lone glimpse of the kind of rugby Leinster are capable of within an 80 minutes mostly dominated by mediocrity. Nevertheless, the win, which came on a day when the three other Irish provinces also won, leaves Leinster sitting pretty atop Pool One with Northampton in second after their bounce-back win against the Ospreys. How long the pool will stay that way will rest primarily on how well Leinster can fix some of the problems which beset them on Saturday. That or they could just continue to ride their luck as far as it will take them.