Leinster v Sale Sharks: Five takeaways from Champions Cup clash as Irish giants get lucky escape at scrum time

James While
Leinster's Andrew Porter during the Champions Cup match against Sale Sharks.

Leinster's Andrew Porter during the Champions Cup match against Sale Sharks.

Following Leinster’s 37-27 Champions Cup victory over Sale Sharks, here are five takeaways from the clash in Dublin on Saturday.

The top line

The scoreline flattered Leinster at the RDS Arena as Sale’s second string put in a performance that would have greatly pleased their director of rugby, Alex Sanderson.

It was always a match of callow youth against seasoned Test performers, and there’s little doubt that Leinster deserved their win, but Sale came out and made them fight tooth and nail for it, especially for the first 50 minutes, and had a couple of officiating decisions gone another way it might have even been closer, but Leinster’s second-half performance took them home as the Sharks’ effort fell off.

Tries from Josh van der Flier (39′), Jamison Gibson-Park (44′), Robbie Henshaw (56′), Ryan Baird (62′) and Cian Healy (69′) saw the Dubliners take the bonus-point win in a feisty and committed affair that saw the forwards clash in close quarters on several occasions, particularly at the end of the game.

It was in the 78th minute that Tommy Taylor drove over from a maul to grab a well-deserved second try for Sale, but they weren’t done as they followed it up a minute later with a brilliant length of the field move from Arron Reed, who combined to send Tom Curtis over in injury time to gain well-earned respectability on the scoreboard.

Gainline battle

The pace of both defences were a feature of this match, with huge line speed closing down the centre of the pitch. Sale’s effort was led by Rob du Preez, a man who plays in the 10 shirt like a second number seven, and with Sam Bedlow and Connor Doherty following their 10 into battle, they gave Leinster plenty of headaches in terms of how they coped with that defensive shift.

But Leinster are a canny team, and few play the tramlines quite as well as they do with ball in hand. Player of the Match Van der Flier and Dan Sheehan are key men in delivering these plays, and their ability to combine with their back three and scrum-half Gibson-Park is a feature of Leinster’s attacking weaponry.

We saw one such move tonight, with Van der Flier combining brilliantly with Gibson-Park to send the latter over for a crucial try – but there will be a lot of discussion about the lineout where the move originated – called for Leinster as a direct kick to touch, the replays showed clearly that the ball was touched before it landed fully on the touchline.

Scrum interpretations

There’s a view within some parts of the game that there are certain props that are getting rewarded on reputation rather than their clear illegality, and, put bluntly, in this match, Andrew Porter got away with blue murder.

In the 37th minute, Sale tighthead James Harper saw yellow for consistent infringement as he was called for the fifth time – yet for many, the only person infringing was the Leinster loosehead. In the first scrum of the match, Porter goes out and then back in on the angle, clearly illegal. The third scrum saw a similar picture. In the fourth, Harper goes legally through Porter and splits him out, yet remarkably is penalised and then admonished for a short bind, which isn’t a penalty offence but a matter of preference and technique.

Then, to cap it all off, the fifth scrum sees Porter roll in and pull Harper to his knees, yet the Sale tighthead is seen to be at fault. It was a quite remarkable set of interpretations from the officials, with the referee in question the same man that did a similar job on Joe Marler against the Stormers in Cape Town last season when the Harlequin was having an absolute cracker of a game in the tight and clearly was on top against Frans Malherbe, yet inexplicably appeared to incur the wrath of the officials despite looking wholly legal.

The fifth first-half penalty cost Sale five points at the other end as Leinster profited from the contentious call. When the interpretations are as obviously and consistently wrong as those seen on Saturday at the RDS, then one can only assume that this is an education issue for the officials involved.

Ireland’s eye

With a few injuries and a retirement in the Irish air as the 2024 Six Nations comes into mind, there’s a big focus on the make-up of Andy Farrell’s midfield and especially the fly-half berth.

Ciaran Frawley went well again but had a powerful defence to deal with. His kicking game was largely neutered by the excellence of the Sale back three and their kick return, where Tom Roebuck absolutely excelled himself battling against the likes of Hugo Keenan and his international colleagues.

But the stand-out effort was that of Ireland’s versatile centre, Henshaw, who looked absolutely back to his best. Games like this demand a direct approach, and Henshaw’s always happy to oblige. He was massive in defending his channel and even bigger in carry as he put in a performance to remind everyone that he’s a Test Lion. His 56-minute try showed precisely that carrying power as he crossed for his score in a crucial passage of the game with the teams as close as you like on the scoreboard.

With Baird and Van der Flier also impressing, Ireland’s selection question marks are starting to get solved, with Henshaw staking his claims once again in his compelling performance.

Sale’s consolation

Sanderson might be disappointed in the way some of the decisions fell against his team, but he has a lot to be pleased about from the performance and physicality of his young team. They stood toe-to-toe with Leinster for most of the game, showing grit and commitment that belied their age.

Whilst we now expect the Sale grit to be characterised by Du Preez, alongside him, Raffi Quirke delivered an assured display at scrum-half, fusing a great kicking game that caused Leinster a lot of issues at the back in the first half, with his trademark snipes and swift service.

Young prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour and Ross Harrison also showed that they are on an upward curve, with Opoku-Fordjour solid as you like against Porter and prominent in the loose, whilst as noted previously, Roebuck had a magnificent match at the back, solid as a rock under the high ball and powerful in return.

It was an experimental side for Sale – they didn’t get the result they might have wished for, but they certainly put in the performance that Sanderson had hoped for.

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