Leinster absorbed Castres’ ferocious first half onslaught before taking a grip on the game in the second and ensuring their Heineken Cup destiny was firmly in their control come next week’s clash at the RDS against the Ospreys. How they managed to weather the Castres storm we’re not quite sure. Because for most of this match they were second best in all the usual deciding facets of a game: scrums, lineouts and the breakdown were dominated by a team that were determined to extend their 18 game unbeaten run at home. The only place Leinster managed to hang on in was on the scoreboard and that was thanks to the contribution of Jimmy Gopperth who scored 21 points and showed a determination for finding the try-line at crucial times.
This game was played at a frenetic pace on a crisp and sunny January day in Stade Pierre-Antoine in the South of France. Any doubts about the French team’s commitment to the game were quashed as they tore Leinster apart in the opening quarter. Tries came from Lion’s lock Richie Gray and fullback Brice Dulin as Leinster defenders fell off tackles due to the pace of the lines taken by the Castres runners and their offloading in tackles. Somehow Leinster stopped the French side from crossing the line again in the first half due to heroic last ditch defence. One example of which was Brian O’Driscoll catching Remi Lamerat metres from the line and in one movement getting into a position over the ball and securing a vital turnover.
Leinster responded to Castres’ early dominance with two tries of their own from flyhalf Gopperth off the back of some good work from the Leinster forwards. Gopperth got the nod over Ian Madigan having come off the bench last week to kick two crucial penalties and set up Gordon D’Arcy’s dubious match winning try against Connacht at the Sportsground. It seemed an inspired choice from coach Matt O’Connor as he side stepped the injured outhalf Remi Tales for his first try before eluding four would-be tacklers in injury time of the first half to secure his brace and ensure Leinster, somehow, went in only 5 points down after taking a beating in all facets.
In the second half the tide shifted Leinster’s way as Gopperth kicked an early penalty and Kearney took an opportune drop goal from 45 metres to get them ahead on the scoreboard for the first time in the game. The penalty came from Castres scrumhalf Cedric Garcia, who couldn’t put a foot wrong in the first half but at the start of the 2nd he decided to use his studs carelessly on a Leinster player at the bottom of a ruck. O’Driscoll was incensed and the TMO confirmed his sentiment to Nigel Owens. Looking at the Castres bench you could see the incredulity etched on their faces and empathise with them as they had done little wrong, Leinster were just so clinical. The game slipped away from them as they gave away some cheap penalties. Gopperth kicked another to put Leinster 24-17 ahead; they were now in control.
Castres had played some great rugby all afternoon and they weren’t about to stop as they pressed Leinster’s line looking for their just reward. However this wasn’t their day as Leinster counter attacked by going through the phases with replacement prop Cian Healy then marauding upfield before feeding Jordi Murphy who went over in the corner for his second try in three weeks. Lamerat did cross the line for a late consolation try which gave them a bonus point: it was the least they deserved.
At the end of the season nobody really remembers how difficult January trips to France were apart from the players involved and people looking back at this scoreline will forget this epic Gallic battle. France might not need the H Cup, but they want it.