Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS
A FRUSTRATINGLY DISJOINTED performance of little substance, but a victory of significance for Leinster as the defending Guinness Pro14 champions secured a home semi-final as early as the first weekend of March.
As Leo Cullen’s side have already shown his season, they don’t need to be anywhere near their best to get the job done in this competition, and that was very much the case here as they extended their lead at the top of Conference B to an unassailable 26 points.
Conor O’Brien celebrates his try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
The greasy conditions dictated that much of the contest was played in the air but it made for little entertainment, as the general sluggishness and lethargy never lifted, with Leinster failing to find their rhythm.
Still, the hosts had more than enough in their armoury to comfortably account for a Cheetahs side who looked as disinterested as many of the 10,057, with Conor O’Brien, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin all crossing for Leinster.
A seventh straight victory assures Cullen’s men of top spot in their Conference with four regular-season games left in the schedule, as they head into a two-week break before a trip to the Edinburgh and the small matter of the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster with one box ticked.
It’s hard to imagine too many players on show tonight will be in action in that European derby at the end of this month, but there were still several standout performers despite the scrappy nature of proceedings.
Max Deegan, named man of the match, is growing into the number seven jersey week-on-week and produced another tireless display here, carrying 10 times for 36 metres and topping the tackle charts with 11.
The pack, in general, had to roll up their sleeves to seize control in the trenches and that allowed the likes of Ross Byrne, Conor O’Brien and Rory O’Loughlin a platform to cause damage on the few occasions Leinster’s attack clicked.
O’Brien continues his impressive breakthrough season with a sixth score of the term, while his midfield partner, O’Loughlin, produced the evening’s one moment of magic, a brilliantly-finished try in this near corner.
Leinster pushed late on for the bonus-point score but had to settle for the four match points, which is all they needed to assure themselves of home advantage in May with plenty left to spare.
Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin tackle Louis Fouche. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
The opening exchanges were largely nondescript, the atmosphere or lack thereof inside the ground resemblant of a pre-season fixture, with Rhys Ruddock’s barking orders audible from 30 rows back on the Grandstand side.
A game of kick tennis — Leinster kicked 31 times from hand in the first period, compared to 22 in the 80 against Kings last week — did little to quicken the pulses, that was until Ox Nche inexplicably jumped into Fergus McFadden, catching the Leinster winger late and dangerously high.
McFadden was flattened by Nche’s shoulder and although Nigel Owens had brandished yellow before the majority of the 10,057 had woken from their stupor, replays showed the Welsh referee had made the wrong call.
Not only did Nche leave the ground, or lead with his shoulder, or make contact with McFadden’s head at full tilt, but the prop showed a complete disregard for his opponent’s safety, and in any circumstance, the card should have been upgraded to red.
Even after examining replays on the big screen, and conversing with his assistant Frank Murphy, Owens stuck with his original decision. How, remains a mystery, as does the fact McFadden continued without undergoing an HIA.
Anyway, Ross Byrne launched the resulting penalty down the touchline, Bryan Byrne found Deegan and with an advantage off the maul, Jamison Gibson-Park brought his tally of Pro14 try assists to 18 as he fed O’Brien for the game’s opening score.
O’Brien, standing at first receiver, showed dexterity and strength to finish from close range, but the Cheetahs defensive effort left a lot to be desired. At the other end, Leinster will have been equally disappointed with their concession of an equalising try.
On the front foot down the right, the ball was lost from Ross Byrne’s grasp on the ground and when it squirted out of the ruck, Benhard Janse van Rensburg was quickest to react to hack it upfield. Rabz Maxwane, streaking clear of Adam Byrne and Ruddock, did the rest.
The visitors, down to 14 men, had survived the opening salvo but by the time Nche — having played his get out of jail free card — was back into the action, Leinster had started to exert a semblance of dominance.
Byrne finishes for Leinster’s second try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
A period of sustained pressure eventually yielded the desired return as a solid scrum under the posts allowed Gibson-Park dart down the short side, before O’Loughlin’s glorious looping, skip pass created the space for Adam Byrne to embellish his 50th appearance in blue with a 23rd-minute try in this near corner.
The second half continued much in the same vein. Conditions, to be fair, didn’t help matters but the disjointed nature of proceedings didn’t suit either team, not least Leinster who struggled to build the sort of momentum they’re so used to enjoying here.
Shortly after Andrew Porter’s introduction, the Cheetahs scrum squeezed a penalty out of Owens on this near side but Tian Schoeman’s effort off the tee was much like the fare on offer — poor. That was until O’Loughlin took it upon himself to produce the game’s one moment of outstanding quality.
Creating the overload out wide, O’Loughlin — hugging the touchline — delicately dinked ahead before controlling on his knee and applying a sliding finish just before the ball was able to skip off the greasy surface and out of play. Byrne’s touchline conversion made it even sweeter, and a 12-point game.
Cullen emptied his bench thereafter, giving Ed Byrne and Josh Murphy more minutes in the engine room and Barry Daly another chance to run at fullback, as the game fizzled out. Job done for Leinster.
Tries: Conor O’Brien, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
Conversions: Ross Byrne [2 from 3].
Tries: Rabz Maxwane.
Conversions: Tian Schoeman [1 from 1].
Penalties: Tian Schoeman [0 from 1].
LEINSTER: 15. Dave Kearney (Barry Daly 66′), 14. Adam Byrne, 13. Rory O’Loughlin (Noel Reid 66′), 12. Conor O’Brien, 11. Fergus McFadden, 10. Ross Byrne, 9. Jamison Gibson-Park (Hugh O’Sullivan 75′); 1. Peter Dooley (Ed Byrne 54′), 2. Bryan Byrne (James Tracy 54′), 3. Michael Bent (Andrew Porter 44′), 4. Ross Molony, 5. Scott Fardy (Mick Kearney 71′), 6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)(Josh Murphy 63′), 7. Max Deegan, 8. Caelan Doris.
CHEETAHS: 15. Louis Fouche, 14. William Small-Smith, 13. Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12. Dries Swanepoel, 11. Rabz Axwane, 10. Tian Schoeman, 9. Tian Meyer; 1. Ox Nche (Charles Marais 63′), 2. Reinach Venter (Jacques du Toit 51′), 3. Aranos Coetzee (Luan de Bruin 51′), 4. Walt Steenkamp, 5. JP du Preez, 6. Gerhard Olivier, 7. Abongile Nonkontwana, 8. Junior Pokomela (Henco Venter 41′).
Replacements not used: 19. Sintu Manjezi, 20. Marnus van der Merwe, 22. Rudy Paige, 23. Shaun Venter.
Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU]
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