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Sexton sees promise after Leinster manage the heat in Lyon

The province are well placed to attack the rest of the pool stages after coming through a tense affair in France.

Rónan Kelleher was happy to get stuck in against Lyon.
Rónan Kelleher was happy to get stuck in against Lyon.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

THE MATMUT STADE de Gerland has had a lick of paint and some new seats added in recent years, and you get the sense that Lyon themselves would be just as impressive if they received a little bit more love.

They lost 13-6 to Leinster on Saturday, but their performance would have been enough to beat plenty of teams in the Heineken Champions Cup. If they build on performances like these, and a make few additions to strengthen the squad, they will soon be doing more than just frustrating teams in Europe. 

The hosts finished the game with 62% possession and 64% territory, yet still ended up with their first home defeat since March. While they played their own part in that with a number of handling errors and some very loose passing, it must also be recognised that those errors came in the face of some intense defensive effort from Leinster. Other teams would have buckled. Leinster keep Lyon scoreless until the 67th minute.

This was not the free-flowing attacking Leinster that have so often lit it up in Europe over the years, but a more dogged and solid unit. They did just enough to win, and with the province on high alert following last season’s pool stage defeat away to Toulouse, that will do just fine.

“We know every point in this competition is so important and to get four [against Lyon] it’s huge in the context of the pool,” said Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain.

“Every time you come to France and get a win you take it. We could have just made it a little bit easier. You know, [if] you get to 17 points you can then go and chase four tries. You try a bit more and let them [defend], they have to play out from the back whereas they just kept playing the pressure game as well. A real arm wrestle but playing against a big French team like that, I’m very proud of the lads.”

On another day they might even have picked up a bonus point. Robbie Henshaw held on to the ball in the first half when James Lowe had made a brilliant support run. Later in the game James Ryan burst free but failed to find a teammate with his pass, while Sexton had a late try crossed out after Garry Ringrose was called for an obstruction.

Head coach Leo Cullen was annoyed to leave points out on the pitch, but internally these will be viewed as only minor frustrations. This time four years ago, Leinster crashed and burned in Europe on the back of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit. Now, Cullen has successfully reintroduced his international contingent while also picking up two wins from two in the competition. This team are only going to get better as the season progresses, and that is enough to please any coach.  

“We make some good breaks but we’re not quite nailing that for whatever reason,” said Cullen.

“At this moment in time it’s probably just the cohesion of the group, we’re probably not in sync with each other.

“We can see that in training, so that’s just repping away. Guys coming into training and spending the time. We’ll juggle the resources of the group, but when we’re all training we need to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’re trying to build the connections of the team all the time.

“There’s little bits where we’re not quite in sync as we’d want to be.” 

Sexton, who finished the game as man of the match, was reluctant to admit that Leinster should have been more clinical with some of those chances.

“It probably wasn’t the actual passes [that killed the opportunities]. It was probably the lack of passes,” he explained

“It’s hard though. Sometimes when you have no one in front of you, you feel that you need to get someone there to draw them and often you just need to give it to the guy with speed and let him go. Cheese [James Ryan] again, an unbelievable play by him to do what he did. He’d a couple of them during the game. The amount of tackles he made. You can’t blame a guy in that position. But it’s hard for him. He’s got no one in front of him and he’s trying to draw, to get someone there. Sometimes you just have to give it to the guy and let him do his thing.

“Then there’s maybe one pass and we tried a fancy offload and they intercepted. I think they were calling for the ball back on the inside but… Look, they are the fine margins. 

“It can be a much more enjoyable game and we can open up a bit more but it wasn’t to be. But we ground out a good win.”

Looking ahead, the most pressing concern would be that they don’t have much time to tidy up those areas of their play. A host of Cullen’s front-liners will be rested for Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 trip to play Glasgow, with a December double-header against Northampton lying around the corner.

Northampton’s defeat of Benetton means both teams head into that set of fixtures on nine points in Pool 1. The margin for error is slim.

“We talk about the squad depth, being able to chop and change,” Cullen continued.

“We made five changes from last week [against Benetton] into this week, that will be the reality. That’s a challenge from the cohesion point of view, but with such a big block of games it’s about making sure we’re smart with the resources we have.”

Those resources are quickly hitting their groove.

Not only are Leinster’s internationals humming nicely after the World Cup, the young players are proving that they belong in Cullen’s team.

Rónan Kelleher looked right at home in Lyon as the home crowd became increasingly raucous. Max Deegan, starting at number eight for the first time in the competition, looked a little more raw, but still handled himself well in testing conditions.

A fiery Sexton looked as commanding and confident as ever, showing no signs of any World Cup hangover, while Rob Kearney’s defensive sensibilities kept Leinster in the lead more than once.

“It’s great for those guys playing their first Champions Cup game in France; for Max it’s his first Champions Cup start. Josh Murphy making his (European) debut off the bench.

“So, yeah, it’s just another positive layer in the younger players. They’ll be better for the experience. It takes a bit of time, doesn’t it? We’re missing a few back-rowers, but some of the younger guys are pushing through well.”

“The different conditions you play in, you just have to adapt and get the job done. Thankfully, we managed to get through but it wasn’t the prettiest.

“We’re still in the hunt.” 

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