September 16, 2015
Leinster started off the better of the two sides and despite going behind 0-3 early on they played all of the rugby in the first half. Apparently they had 76% possession in the first 40, which is incredibly impressive for such a weakened side, albeit against a Cardiff side who are notoriously poor (they came 10th in the Pro12 last season, 27 points behind Leinster). However at the break Leinster only led 10-9. While they dominated the game in almost every aspect they struggled to turn that dominance into points. And with Rhys Patchell in superb form from the tee they were made to pay from the Cardiff 10m line onwards.
The second half saw Cardiff come into the game a little bit more but they never really threatened the Leinster line and the home sides defence managed everything that was thrown at them. Cardiff only managed another 2 penalties in the second half. Leinster on the other hand bagged a further 13 points (2 penalties and a penalty try). This denied Cardiff even a Losing Bonus Point.
But was this a good first home game for Leo and his coaches? To answer that question you need to remember that Leinster were in their second game of the season (and they are known as being slow starters), they have new and inexperienced coaches and are missing 21 players to either the RWC or injury. Expectations simply must be reduced due to these factors.
Almost the entire pack was third choice. Ross Molony was getting his first start (and only his second cap at this level) and he was running both our offensive and defensive line-outs. Our half backs have had very little game time to speak of, particularly Cathal Marsh who didn't get a single minute at all last season. And Gary Ringrose on the wing is a centre who has never played at senior level before. On the bench were 4 Academy players with very limited exposure to senior rugby and an AIL prop. That's an incredibly patched together and inexperienced squad. Compare that to Cardiff who were predominantly first and second choice players and you can see just where Leinster stood next to their opponents.
So the fact that Leinster dominated so much of the game for starters is a huge positive. Guys like Dundon, McCarthy, Conan, van der Flier and Te'o carried really well. Te'o and Conan in particular got Leinster over the gain line on a regular basis. McGrath and Marsh at half back ran the show pretty well and Noel Reid acted as what the southern hemisphere term a "second five-eighth". In other words he was a second 10 at times, taking pressure off Marsh and providing Leinster with additional options off the back of rucks (Marsh on one side and Reid on the other). Ringrose went well on the wing, fielding balls well and working hard in a number of areas (he looked like a centre playing on the wing). Nacewa at the back looked a class above most on the park, which was encouraging given his 2 year break.
Leinster also tried to play a more expansive game than we've seen from them the last 2 years. Wrap arounds, coming onto the ball at pace, changing direction and dummy runners were all on display. Most importantly quick ball from rucks were commonplace unlike last season. Not everything they tried worked, but the intent was there. Their set piece was pretty solid. They did concede a few penalties at scrum time, but they also bullied the Cardiff scrum at times too. And when Cardiff did start to get into the game a small bit in the second half the Leinster defence coped fairly easily. Rhys Patchell scored 5 penalties, 3 of which were from over 45 metres out. Which shows how rarely they made it into the Leinster 22. Other than Patchell's incredible form from the tee Cardiff were never in the game.
Leo Cullen has come out since the game to say that they still were not happy with a lot of their execution and that there is more to come from Leinster this season. This is exactly the kind of attitude Leinster need. There were a couple of try scoring opportunities that went begging and shouldn't have. And Leinster didn't convert the possession they had in the first half into points as well as they should have. But as a base to build from Saturday was a very positive one. Young lads got exposure and stepped up, with Josh van der Flier deservedly picking up the Man of the Match award. It was just one game though and the hard work starts now. They need to build on this performance. And where better to continue the good work than a grudge match against Newport Gwent Dragons in the RDS in 3 weeks. If Leinster can build some momentum during the RWC it would go a long way to banishing the memories of last season and easing the concerns of those fans who worried about Leo's appointment.