Opinion: Leinster show champion qualities to top pool

Date published: January 12 2019

It was not perfect and there were mistakes which would have irritated the perfectionists at Leinster, but the Irish province showed why they are the defending Champions Cup champions.

Leo Cullen’s men were stunned by Toulouse in October, where they were rattled by the hosts’ superb start, but there were no such issues at the RDS Arena on Saturday. Remember, this was a side without Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Rob Kearney and Devin Toner, yet they were still far too good for Ugo Mola’s men, who had not lost since September.

They are so adaptable, remarkably well coached and, as a result, incredibly difficult to break down. The Dubliners like to play from deep but can also truck it up the middle with a pack that are both impressive in the set-piece and superbly skilful and effective in the loose.

Cullen’s charges displayed excellent patience to wear down their opponents’ gargantuan pack and, once Leinster had suffocated the visitors, they pounced.

Ross Byrne, who fitted into the XV seamlessly in the absence of Sexton, produced one of his trademark cross-field kicks for Dave Kearney to finish, before Sean Cronin and Adam Byrne wrapped up the bonus-point victory late on. It was the mark of a champion team.

The efforts of Byrne and Kearney also personifies what they have built in the Ireland capital. Whoever plays does their job effectively and it is credit to Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the coaches that they have helped create a structure and culture which makes it easy for them to rotate.

Toulouse did have some success in the scrum early on but Cian Healy and co simply reset and garnered a solid platform which allowed them to dominate pretty much every other facet of play.

It was typical of a team confident in their ability to withstand pressure and merely get the job done. There were times in the first half when Mola’s outfit threatened to break free but they ultimately crumbled under the sheer weight of the Leinster pack.

It will therefore take an outstanding team to stop them. Saracens, Racing 92 and Munster are their closest challengers at the moment but the former have struggled with Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Brad Barritt absent, while the Parisians were decidedly average against Ulster.

That leaves their fellow Irish province and arch-rivals, who appear to be finding their form having produced an outstanding display at Gloucester on Friday, but they will face a stern challenge against Exeter Chiefs next weekend, so qualification is by no means guaranteed.

Leinster have been tested at times in the 2018/19 European campaign and were under duress against Bath at the Rec in the December double-header, but the Dubliners always seem to find an answer.

Similarly, they were pressurised into a few errors early on by a swarming Toulouse defence, while the French giants also created a couple of chances, but the fact that the province were able to fix those issues shows why they are clear favourites for the title.