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Sunday 23 September 2018

The Empire Strikes Back to seal it at finish

Champions Leinster masters of the art of winning matches without playing well

POWER PLAY: Joe Tomane of Leinster in action against Cardiff Blues during the Guinness PRO14 match at Cardiff Arms Park Pic: Sportsfile
POWER PLAY: Joe Tomane of Leinster in action against Cardiff Blues during the Guinness PRO14 match at Cardiff Arms Park Pic: Sportsfile

The first of 21 rounds of the PRO14 League regular season opened up with serious bang for everyone's buck.

There were five out of seven one-score matches, one two-point finish and two nerve-tingling one-point endings.

Leinster set the tone for the weekend with a smash-and-grab 33-32 comeback against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park.

The champions were predictably ring-rusty and were on the receiving end of most of the significant punches for the first 50 minutes.

It reveals everything about their current standing in the game that they could slip three scores behind (29-14) with half-an-hour left on the clock and still have stored up enough character for 'the Empire to strike back' at the death.

ALL SMILES: Scott Fardy (left) and Jamison Gibson-Park of Leinster following the Guinness PRO14 win over Cardiff. Pic: Sportsfile
ALL SMILES: Scott Fardy (left) and Jamison Gibson-Park of Leinster following the Guinness PRO14 win over Cardiff. Pic: Sportsfile

The four stars stitched to their chests make them a target for all they encounter, even outside of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Know-how

Like Saracens before them, they can be a long way short of optimum form and still have the know-how to overcome those who have not yet learned to win playing moderately.

Cardiff coach John Mulvihill must have viewed it as a noteworthy scalp.

The Welsh Blues got to the pace of the game quickly on their artificial surface.

By the time, centre Rey Lee-Lo snatched his second try, converted by their impressive out-half Jarrod Evans, Leinster had lost last season's leading try-scorer Barry Daly to injury in the ninth minute.

Interestingly, the introduction of a new front row comprising of the Byrne brothers, Bryan and Ed, and tight-head Andrew Porter led to an immediate impact for the first of Bryan Byrne's two tries.

Then, the entry of Jamison Gibson-Park for Luke McGrath, in the 63rd minute, prompted the same sort of game-changing influence, the scrum-half picking up the pace of the game and knifing over after orchestrating a swift attack.

The Leinster reserves had all been called to service by the time Byrne found the base of the post to his liking in the 78th minute, Ross Byrne's conversion guaranteeing the five points that owed everything to the collective mentality of refusing to accept the inevitability of defeat.

Even ahead of the season, Sean O'Brien (shoulder), Dan Leavy (shoulder), Garry Ringrose (foot) and Josh van der Flier (knee) were among those recovering from injury.

Up-and-coming flanker Will Connors has been ruled out with a serious knee injury and the improving Ciaran Frawley has had his momentum stalled by a wrist problem, both endured in the pre-season match against Newcastle Falcons.

As always, Leinster are walking the tightrope between the IRFU's Player Welfare policy, multiple injuries and when best to expose their inexperienced men to what is a hard start to the season.

The competitive juices have just begun to flow and it doesn't get any easier.

There had to be a more amenable return to action than travelling to Cardiff and Scarlets in the first two rounds.

The late demise of the latter to Ulster in Belfast will only serve to polish their focus to under-cut the club which ended their PRO14 and Champions Cup dreams at the semi-final stage last season.

Precious

The need for Leinster to play 55 players last season to do battle on two fronts will probably be repeated this time around.

The most precious merchandise will be manag ed with equal parts caution and care ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It is not just about the first or second string, but the third string too.

"We don't talk about second string and first string. We know we have an incredible squad," said out-half Ross Byrne.

"Last year, we used over 50 players in the league and we know it will take something similar this year."

The timely interventions of Gibson-Park served to illustrate the importance the foreign crew will play in Leinster's bid to repeat the improbable.

Even Wallaby back five forward Scott Fardy was prone to one head-scratching moment when his ill-considered quick throw in offered up a golden chance for Cardiff's Jason Harries to snap up their third try on Friday night.

This refuelled Fardy's determination to make a difference, his reaction providing a salient lesson in how to bounce back from a moment of madness.

However, centre Joe Tomane was not able to show the same resilience, as poor defence and handling made for a bad marriage on his competitive debut.

The 28-year-old has been through enough adversity in his career to be able to put it down to a bad night in the office.

There is no better place in the PRO14 League to seek redemption than at Parc Y Scarlets.

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