I travelled over for the final group game for Leinster. It was a bitterly cold night in France but the match was exciting and was on a knife edge for most of the game to keep all of us in the crowd distracted. Leinster knew going in to the match that a win would guarantee a top 2 finish.
It started brilliantly with Leinster scoring a penalty and the Henshaw getting his first try for Leinster. It was an opportunistic score and we had suddenly found ourselves 10-0, appearing like we were cruising to an easy victory, especially considering Castres seemingly had nothing to play for.
However Castres were not going to give up that easily. Castres have only lost once this season at home and the rest of the game showed exactly why. They played with real passion and intensity that at times Leinster were powerless to stop. Leinster also lost the experience of Sexton and Nacewa early in the game, which only compounded their problems.
The game was a real rollercoaster for anyone present. In truth either team could have won. Castres looked on course to win it at the end with a series of mauls against 14 men. In fact it seemed only a matter of time before they did and snatched the game. However before that last period of sustained pressure, Leinster could well have got a bonus point win, with only the cruel bounce of the ball stopping Leinster’s Rob Kearney from running under the posts unopposed.
The result of all this was Leinster managing to hold Castres lunges for the line at bay and scraping a draw. It was enough to secure a home quarter final against Wasps. However it now means we will be away to either Clermont or Toulon in the semis! Despite all this I think it was important for Leinster to have a really tough game, lately we seem to have had a string of slightly easier matches which I feared had the potential to leave us exposed later on.
Last weekend saw the opening of the European campaign. Leinster’s first game was against familiar French opponents, Castres. The game only near the end of the first half looked somewhat like a contest, other than that it was a relatively easy afternoon for Leinster. The bonus point was wrapped up by the 50th minute. Castres don’t have the financial power of other French counterparts and can normally only focus on domestic matters. However, they only typically admit defeat in Europe come the latter rounds of the group stages, normally starting off quite competitively. So in this match it was important to strike early and make sure that Castres didn’t gain a glimmer of an upset. Leinster did this well and took an early lead which they never seriously looked in danger of surrendering.
The main subplot of the afternoon was Joey Carberry filling in for Jonathan Sexton as outhalf. This was Joey’s first European start but you would never have guessed. As a young player, he has just taken every challenge put in front of him in his stride and performed brilliantly every time he has been given an opportunity. He managed the backline superbly, kicked out of hand accurately and even up until the very end was still making breaks and offloading. Before this game I had a serious concern over how far we would go in either competition if Sexton were to get injured, now my fears have been largely wiped.
Despite some really eye catching performances from the likes of Ringrose, Henshaw and especially Nacewa, the real star of this performance was the forward unit. Four of the five tries came from really strong forward play and John Fogarty and Leo must be delighted with their showing. The first two tries came from really good mauling, which I saw as a possible weakness following the Munster game. The final try was also a penalty try which resulted from scrum penalties, which is very impressive given the size of the Castes forwards. The substitute forwards also came on and added to the pressure which is always promising to see. In regards to the bench, the replacements for the forwards all are excellent players who have a lot to prove and add when they appear. The backs on the bench will improve as more players begin to return from injuries.
My only complaint after the game and result is that perhaps Leinster weren’t clinical enough. My feeling after the game was that they left one or two try opportunities out there on the day. At the end of round 5 this group could well come down to points difference, in which case Leinster may rue some of the opportunities they failed to convert. This is however a pretty minor complaint on what was otherwise an excellent afternoon for Leinster.
So the European campaign has started brightly after last year’s disappointing start. However the games are only going to get tougher, starting with Leinster’s game away to Montpellier next weekend.