By Phil Rice
Leinster demonstrated their immense strength in depth last Saturday by making ten changes from the side that beat Glasgow in the Champions Cup the previous week. And they still comfortably beat a near full strength Ulster side.
When one of the changes you make introduces Sean O’Brien to the team you cannot claim to be weakening your side.
The ‘Tullow tank’ was captain for the day and he quickly brushed off any rust that might have lingered after a five-week break from the game.
He was ultimately named man of the match and must have pleased the watching Joe Schmidt with his fitness level and combativeness.
He lasted the full 80 minutes and is clearly raring to go for the autumn international series, which starts in two weeks against the vastly improved Springboks.
Leinster lost centre Noel Reid after just two minutes but three minutes later his replacement Jordan Larmour carved through the Ulster defence with a superb break and touched down at the posts, and Leinster were on their way.
Although the impressive Sean Reidy levelled matters shortly after with a try, Leinster always seemed to be in control. And when Cian Healy and Luke McGrath were sprung from the bench early in the second half Leinster stepped things up a notch.
Two tries from the talented McGrath pressed home their advantage. The final score of 25-10 to Leinster accurately reflected the difference between the teams on the night.
Leinster have only tasted defeat once so far this season and that was in South Africa with a relatively weakened team against the Cheetahs.
Leo Cullen and assistant Stuart Lancaster have clearly planned meticulously for the best utilisation of their talented squad. Every position is covered by two or three players of international, or near international level, ability.
They have learned through painful experience that competing on two major fronts in the Champions Cup and the Pro14 league, while providing as many as 20 players to the Ireland squad, demands serious planning and forethought.
With Jamie Heaslip, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier due to return in December from surgery the squad should be in good shape for the next phase of Champions Cup matches, a demanding back-to-back couple of games against English champions Exeter Chiefs. Connacht coach Kieran Keane called for a step up in performance from his team last week if they were to effectively compete against Munster.
Well, his team duly responded and turned around a half-time deficit to beat the Munstermen 20-16. The centre combination of new Irish squad member Bundee Aki and recent recruit from the Leinster Academy, Tom Farrell, is looking increasingly potent, and it was Farrell who carved through the Munster defence in the 67th minute for the decisive try.
Munster maintained their second place in Conference A of the Pro14 league, but a huge 12-point gap has opened between them and leaders Glasgow Warriors. They must be enviously looking at the strength of the Leinster squad as they approach this demanding phase of the season.
They supply 11 players to the recently announced Ireland squad and they will be hoping they all come through the autumn series relatively unscathed.
The first international is against South Africa on 11 November, with Fiji and Argentina to follow in consecutive weeks. All three teams are renowned for their physicality and Joe Schmidt will be determined to maintain Ireland’s position in the top three of the world rankings.
After this week’s matches the Pro14 league takes a break for four weeks. On Friday evening Leinster face a difficult away tie against Glasgow who will be anxious to gain revenge for the crushing defeat inflicted by Leinster just two weeks previously in the Champions Cup.
On the same evening Munster entertain the Dragons and will be hoping to bounce back against Bernard Jackman’s men. Ulster have the wearying journey to Port Elizabeth to take on the winless Southern Kings.
They will be without their six players involved in Ireland squad training, but should still have too much firepower for their South African opponents.
The vastly improved Cheetahs visit the Sportsground to take on Connacht in what should be a close affair. Connacht only supply three players to the Ireland squad so will still field a strong team.