With the Heineken Cup pool stages finished, the PRO12 campaign just over halfway complete and the international season about to start, now is a great time to take stock of how the four Irish provinces have gotten on so far this season. Over the next few days we’ll look at each province individually, reviewing their European and PRO12 campaigns as well as outlining what lies ahead in the coming months.
Top of the PRO12 by 9 points and a home quarter-final secured as second seeds after dominating Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, Leinster are in great shape. Joe Schmidt’s squad have only twice all season and both of those losses came back in September with the international players away on World Cup duty. Since the 19-23 loss to Glasgow at the RDS on the 17th of September, Leinster have gone unbeaten in 16 games, 15 of those wins.
In the PRO12, the only other loss was to the Ospreys on the opening day of the season when Leinster fielded a fairly inexperienced team. Since September though, Schmidt’s men have been unstoppable. They are the top try-scorers in the league with 29 while their points difference is streets ahead of anyone at +128. The closest side to that are the Ospreys who stand on +65. Leinster have the 5th strongest defence in terms of points conceded, 218. Their biggest win of the PRO12 season so far is the 52-9 trashing of a heavily weakened Cardiff team at the start of December.
In the Heineken Cup, the reigning champions had no trouble negotiating Pool 3, winning 5 and drawing 1 of the 6 fixtures against Bath, Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier. The three home fixtures showed exactly what Leinster are capable of, particularly the spectacular 52-27 dismantling of Bath at the Aviva in December. Leinster, with 18, are second only to Clermont in the try-scoring stakes in the tournament so far. Clermont have scored 26 so far, thanks to their 12-try, 82-0 humbling of Aironi. The French side obviously lead in terms of points difference too, on +146, but Leinster’s +84 is well ahead of the next best, Munster and Toulouse on +45.
The two-time Heineken Cup victors have 4 wins from the 4 inter-provincial games they’ve played so far in this campaign. They dispatched Connacht 30-20 at the RDS in October, then just about survived to win 13-15 at the Sportsground this month. Johnny Sexton’s kicking ensured a 24-19 win over Munster at the Aviva in November while a weak Ulster team was dispatched 42-13 on Stephen’s Day.
In terms of player performances, the size and strength in depth of the Leinster squad is what has kept them at the forefront of both competitions. Jonathan Sexton is the top points scorer in the squad with 121 so far. Isa Nacewa stands at 87, but Fergus McFadden’s prolific recent kicking form means he’s gaining fast on 71. Surprisingly, Ian Madigan is the squad’s top try-scorer with 6. Rob Kearney’s 4 in the last 4 games leaves him just one behind on 5, while Luke Fitz has crossed the whitewash 4 times.
Leinster now have a quarter-final final with the Cardiff Blues at the Aviva on Saturday the 7th of April to look forward to. A win in that game would mean an away semi to the winner of the Saracens vs. Clermont quarter. It does look like a tough route to the final, but nothing is beyond this Leinster squad. As with every side involved in the HC quarter-finals, Schmidt will be keeping his fingers crossed that key players like Sexton and Sean O’Brien can avoid injury in the 6 Nations.
With that healthy 9 point lead in the PRO12, and only 10 games left before the play-offs, Leinster should be ok for a home semi-final there. The two toughest fixtures in those 10 will probably be the away clashes with Munster in March and Ulster in April. However, we should see Leinster challenging for honours on both fronts come the end of the season.
Leinster’s stats so far this season:
Games played: 19 Won: 16 Drawn: 1 Lost: 2
Points scored: 518 Tries scored: 47 Try-scoring bonus points: 5
Points conceded: 306 Tries conceded: 26 Losing bonus points: 1
Top points scorer: Jonathan Sexton (121) Top try scorer: Ian Madigan (6)
Photos courtesy: Art Widak, Martin Dobey.
Here’s a look at perhaps Leinster’s most impressive performance of the season, the 52-27 demolition of Bath at the Aviva in December:
Finally, highlights of the 24-19 win over Munster in the PRO12 back in November: