As Leinster coach Leo Cullen admitted at the weekend though, the hard part for his team may be coming now as for the first time the squad breaks up to accommodate the Ireland national team’s camp ahead of the forthcoming Autumn International season in the northern hemisphere. He’s going to have to rely on his squad players in the next game against Scarlets and some beyond that, all of which makes it even more important that his team has created a bit of a buffer at the top.
The DHL Stormers’ win over the Vodacom Bulls in an all South African final at the end of the first season the competition was played under the Vodacom URC banner made it easy to forget that in the league phase Leinster continued their long domination of what was previously the PRO14 and PRO12 competitions.
They were knocked out unexpectedly by the Vodacom Bulls in what proved a seismic semi-final at the RDS Arena, but Leinster were possibly still a little shell-shocked at that point following their agonising last gasp defeat to La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille.
With the DHL Stormers going down to Cardiff this past weekend, Leinster are the only team in the competition that are unbeaten, thus giving a “business as usual” hue to the way the season is panning out for them. Their emphatic 27-13 win over arch-rivals Munster in the Irish derby at the Aviva Stadium means that Leinster can claim the team from Limerick, Ulster and the Cell C Sharks among their victims in the six games they have played so far.
With two games postponed because of the gastro problem that broke out in the camps of Ulster and the Glasgow Warriors, it means that Leinster now have a seven point lead at the top of the table. Ulster do have a game in hand, as do the fourth-placed DHL Stormers, who are two further points adrift, but the competition is already reaching a stage where Leinster have to be beaten soon to stop the jostle for pole position from becoming a one horse race.
Leinster have away trips to the Vodacom Bulls and Munster and home games against Ulster and the DHL Stormers in their future, but it is already getting hard to pinpoint any stumbling blocks for them in their quest to secure home ground advantage for the play-off phase.
Not that Leinster are having everything their own way, and in the Munster clash they had to come from behind to win. Indeed, after 45 minutes, Munster were leading 13-7 following a Liam Coombes try, and the Leinster section of the massive Aviva Stadium crowd would have been sitting uncomfortably as a miracle looked possible.
But Leinster chose most of their top players for the clash, including Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Caelen Doris and Garry Ringrose, and that experience enabled them to pull though quite comfortably in the end.
Cullen pinpointed that experience and regaining of composure when asked about his team’s victory by the Irish media afterwards.
“We weren’t clinical enough in the first half and a bit impatient at times, and then Munster were suddenly ahead, but then we showed much better composure from then on,” said Cullen.
“To come away with a bonus point win against Munster was good, that doesn’t happen a lot when Leinster play Munster. To come away with four tries was a positive outcome. We have six wins now, three of them in the Inter-pro (Irish interprovincial competition), so we are looking good.
“We break apart now, but hopefully the other guys will carry on with what the others have started. We are playing away against Scarlets and we know we are going to get big opposition from all the teams we play because if you look at the middle parts of the log table, it is highly competitive in the battle for top eight spots and also for European Champions Cup qualification. To lose out on Champions Cup has become a big thing so we are pleased we are up and running. There is still a hell of a lot more to come from this group though.”
The weekend saw Edinburgh break into the top eight as they continued their recovery from three successive defeats to South African teams with a good win over Zebre Parma, while Ospreys were set back in their quest for a top spot in the Welsh Shield by an unexpected loss to the Dragons, who continue to be confounding with their unpredictability.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Benetton 22 Vodacom Bulls 44
Connacht 36 Scarlets 14
Zebre Parma 19 Edinburgh 38
Leinster 27 Munster 13
Cardiff 30 DHL Stormers 24
Dragons 32 Ospreys 25
Called off: Emirates Lions v Glasgow Warriors and Cell C Sharks v Ulster