Northampton 7 Leinster 40 match report: Leinster give lesson in the arts of speed and handling
Northampton overwhelmed from the start by a brand of the game they rarely experience
Fair play to Jim Mallinder. Eschewing any weasel excuses, the first word used by Northampton's director of rugby to describe his team's battering by an astonishingly skillful and intense Leinster was "embarrassed", quickly followed by "completely outclassed".
There may be hardliners wearing suits in the boardrooms of English clubs who attempt to explain away this result as an inevitable consequence of what they see as the inherent iniquities of the Heineken Cup. But Mallinder and the joyously vocal contingent of Leinster supporters in an otherwise hushed Franklin's Gardens only had eyes for the coruscating brilliance of the "boys in blue", epitomised but by no means confined to the rugby genius that is Brian O'Driscoll.
The off-field arguments, which as things stand will see England's clubs pull out from European competition next season unless governance and commercial controls are altered, led Northampton's chief executive Allan Robson to speculate in his programme notes that last night's meeting and next Saturday's rematch in Dublin might be the last ever between these teams who produced a classic Heineken final won by Leinster in 2011. For the love of all that is good in the game, let someone put it all right. Yes, the Irish have prospered through this tournament, funding quality squads with Leinster alone three-time winners in the last five years. Yes, the Irish fear change, if it means power and revenues drawn on the lines of population and television viewership. But if one theory is that Leinster should be forced to play harder week to week in their domestic Pro 12, why would anyone want to blunt the edges of O'Driscoll or Luke Fitzgerald, the wing who scored two tries in the first seven minutes and another 11 minutes from the end? Talent must be nurtured - not knackered.
The challenge is for Northampton and the other English teams to get better. By next week, if Saints are to salvage a quarter-final place after their biggest margin of defeat at home in Europe.
"I had fun today," said O'Driscoll, 34, who retires next summer. "I've yet to finish 80 minutes this season, they're looking after the old guy. I feel I'm enjoying it, we've built a relatively good history in recent years and it's about trying to build on that."
Both teams were a prop down from their chosen line-ups: Salesi Ma'afu for Saints and Cian Healy for Leinster. The visitors could promote Jack McGrath and still field 15 Ireland internationals , Northampton were already short of their injured England loosehead prop, Alex Corbisiero, in addition to Ben Foden missing in the back three. When James Wilson strained his calf strain just as the warm-up ended, it left Ken Pisi switched to full-back where the Samoan made a nightmarish start.
The difficulty was picking which was of Leinster's quartet of tries was best as they rattled up a bonus point by the 37th minute. Pisi fumbled O'Driscoll's deft grubber to gift Fitzgerald the first. A stunningly audacious reverse pass through his legs by O'Driscoll helped make Fitzgerald's second.
The wonders it would have taken Northampton's England hopeful Luther Burrell to appear anything other than a lumberer by comparison were not forthcoming. Steve Myler soon kicked Northampton penalties to touch to try and force a revival but Leinster roared on, distributing among the backs with a speed surely far beyond anything seen in the Aviva Premiership here this season.
Jamie Heaslip's try with 26 minutes gone was all about pace: Ian Madigan ran a wraparound with Sean Cronin before finding Rob Kearney who hurtled into the line on a sumptuous angle perpendicular to the posts. With an outside pass to Heaslip the deed was done and Madigan coverted again for 19‑0 as he would do after the fourth try 10 minutes later.
It was so ingenious by Madigan to send a free-kick bomb in Pisi's direction. And Kearney's chase and midair catch would have appeared miraculous if the full-back had not already done the same two or three times before. As Leinster rucked on the Northampton 22-metre line, Eoin Reddan broke free from the base and stepped past Jamie Elliott.
Northampton knew they were heading for a fourth Heineken Cup reverse in four attempts against Leinster. Courtney Lawes rose to the task: galloping and stepping and piling into contact. Lee Dickson drew a yellow-card block out of the replacement prop Michael Bent and went over for a Northampton try in the 67th minute. But O'Driscoll had grabbed Leinster's fifth try four minutes beforehand, when the masterly centre picked off a pass by Dom Waldouck. D'Arcy's break and Zane Kirchner's pass to Fitzgerald sealed the job. "What went wrong?" said Tom Wood, Northampton's England flanker. "Everything."
Northampton Saints K Pisi; J Elliott (T Collins 71), D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler (G Dickson 68), L Dickson (R Glynn 68); A Waller (E Waller 59), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood 59), T Mercey (G Denman 33-35, 61), S Manoa, C Lawes, P Dowson (C Clark 59), T Wood, S Dickinson (C Day 41).
Leinster R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner 55), B O'Driscoll (J Gopperth 71), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan (J Cooney 65); J McGrath (M Bent 57), S Cronin (A Dundon 57), M Ross (M Moore 57), D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 61), R Ruddock (McGrath 74), S O'Brien (S Jennings 33), J Heaslip (capt).
Referee N Owens (Wales).
Try: L Dickson
Tries: Fitzgerald 2, Heaslip, Reddan, O'Driscoll, Madigan
Cons: Madigan 5
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