It wasn’t a great weekend for Irish rugby, with Ireland going down to France in the Six Nations, Sean O’Brien suffering a grade two hamstring tear and Munster losing at home to the Ospreys, but one of the bright spots in an otherwise dire weekend for Irish rugby was Leinster’s 52-0 mauling of Zebre at the RDS last Friday night.
It was a big win for Leinster and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Irish province who grabbed their first win in five weeks, after back-to-back losses against Wasps and the Newport Gwent Dragons over the last few weeks.
Leinster started the game slowly but opened the scoring through Hayden Triggs inside the first ten minutes and had the bonus point secured before half-time, but scoring aside, Friday’s clash presented coach Leo Cullen with an opportunity to unload his bench and give many of the club’s highly-touted academy products a run in the starting side, with 14 players unavailable through international duty.
Winger Adam Byrne grabbed his first try in three years, scrum-half Luke McGrath impressed off the bench and outside centre Garry Ringrose received Man of the Match honours, but it was the performance of outhalf Cathal Marsh that was arguably the most noteworthy given his growing importance within Leinster rugby.
At 24 years of age, Marsh’s opportunities have been few and far between for Leinster in recent years with Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth all preferred to the St. Michael’s product ever since he made his debut for the province back in 2013.
With Gopperth now plying his trade in the Aviva Premiership with Wasps, Madigan on his way to Bordeaux and Sexton constantly battling injury, Marsh is inevitably going to be a pivotal part of Leinster’s plans going forward with his role set to only increase as time passes.
After a poor start, in which he sent a spiral pass into the turf followed by an equally poor garryowen, the St. Mary’s pivot eventually settled into the game and before long started to control the tempo and dictate play.
The Dublin-born playmaker played a key role in a number of Leinster tries as he froze the Zebre defence time and time again by withholding his pass before navigating his way through a lazy and often incohesive Zebre defence.
For a player that was making just his seventh start of the season, Marsh demonstrated a tremendous command of the Leinster backline and could be heard calling and dictating plays as Leinster steamrolled their way to a one-sided blowout.
His leadership and authority in the Leinster backline did not go unnoticed by head coach Leo Cullen who praised Marsh’s ability to come in and make an impact.
“I think he runs the team really, really well,” said Cullen at the post-match press conference.
“He’s growing into that role all the time and tonight was slightly better conditions than it was against the Dragons.
“I thought he recognised the space pretty well for most of the game and when to put the ball in behind and when there was attacking opportunities to run as well, so it’s another good step in his learning curve.”
Marsh kicked three of Leinster’s six conversions with winger Isa Nacewa the team’s first-choice goal kicker to start the game. When he was handed the goal kicking duties after Nacewa’s departure early in the second-half it was to mixed success, with the 24-year-old nailing some tough conversions towards the sideline while squandering some relatively routine kicks closer to the posts.
It’s an area Cullen claims he’s continuing to work at but must improve in going forward.
“Yeah definitely, and he has to continue to work at that as well,” Cullen said when asked about Marsh’s goal kicking.
“That’s the basics of his position and even with some of his line kicking, it’s important that he keeps working away at that.
“We missed one at the very end, but again it’s all part of the learning experience for him.”
Marsh’s personal tally of six points counted for little in the grand scheme of province’s win, but his maturity and strong play is encouraging for Leinster going forward given Sexton’s history with injury and Madigan’s pending departure.
The reins of the Leinster backline still firmly belong to Sexton and in all likelihood will continue to do so as long as he is fit and healthy, but in the event that Sexton can’t suit up in blue and misses extended periods of time, it’s comforting to know that in Marsh, Leinster have an ever-improving fly-half that is showing the potential to be the province’s outhalf of the future.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena