Leinster were the first team to wrap up qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup when they obliterated Montpellier 57-3 at the RDS last Friday.
The three-time European champions demolished Jake White’s side to secure qualification, and assert themselves as a genuine contender in the process, but against a Castres side with nothing to play for, the Irish side nearly blew a golden opportunity to seal a home quarter-final.
Over the last three European Cups, the home team has won 10 of the last 12 quarter-finals, so needless to say, while Leinster had already qualified, they still had a lot to play for against Castres and looked on course for a comfortable win after racing out to a 10-0 lead through a runaway try from Robbie Henshaw and a routine Johnny Sexton penalty.
But then Sexton went down, and not in the way that we all assume when we read that line, but in a way that still dented Leinster’s chances with the Ireland fly-half withdrawing after 22 minutes in what is expected to be a calf injury.
The Leinster playmaker is starting to miss more games than he’s playing this season, but it was his big miss out of the Leinster line that led to Castres first try as Antoine Dupont danced his way through would be Leinster defenders to pull one back for the hosts.
Sexton’s big gamble failed to pay off, as Dupont dropped Devin Toner with a nasty right footed step before skipping by Isa Nacewa and over the Leinster line.
The 20-year-old was not included in French coach Guy Noves 32-man squad for next month’s Six Nations championship with Racing’s Maxime Machenaud and Bordeaux’s Baptiste Serin both preferred to the French underage international.
While Machenaud and Serin will both battle it out to be France’s starting nine when Noves’ side take on England in their Six Nations opener next month, Dupont will give Noves and his coaching staff plenty of food for thought with the dynamic scrum-half gutting Leinster around the fringes while zipping the ball out of the Castres ruck as he expertly guided his side around the field.
Dupont’s sharp passing and probing runs around the ruck will have impressed Noves and his coaching staff, however, France’s brainstrust will also have taken notice of his shortcomings, with Dupont stringing together a number of crucial mistakes that ultimately led to Robbie Henshaw’s second try.
Henshaw was brilliant for Leinster, and breezed his way past David Smith to add the visitors second, but it was Dupont’s mistakes that created the opportunity in the first place, with the Castres scrum-half first firing a poor pass to Victor Moreaux who knocked the ball on inside his own 22.
From the ensuing Leinster scrum, Adam Byrne burst onto a pass from Luke McGrath before evading the challenge of Dupont and setting up Henshaw to score.
Dupont has a bright and promising future ahead of him, but he’ll probably have to bide his time before he can try his luck as an international. The same cannot be said for Robbie Henshaw.
The former Connacht utility has quickly established himself as a mainstay within the Irish midfield and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will undoubtedly be pleased by what he saw from the 23-year-old.
The Athlone native has largely been utilised as a bruising ball carrier during his international career thus far, although his acrobatic try against England in the 2015 Six Nations would beg to differ, but regardless of his use in international rugby, there’s no denying Henshaw’s athleticism.
The Leinster centre showed a clean set of wheels to race away from Castres defence on Leinster’s first try before showing graceful footwork to dot down under the posts on his second score.
His midfield partnership with Garry Ringrose is steadily developing, and while it’s usually Ringrose who garners the rave reviews for his footwork and speed, Henshaw showed that he’s no slouch in that department either, with a fine display with ball in hand.
However, Henshaw’s smooth display with the pill was not reciprocated by his Leinster teammates as the visitors often looked sloppy and bombed a number of opportunities to win the game, with poor handling and timing among their biggest problems.
Senior Coach Stuart Lancaster will no doubt address these shortcomings at training next week but Leinster do not look as intimidating as they were a week ago.
Leinster still have the talent, experience and the pedigree to go all the way in this season’s Champions Cup, but they will need to be better than they were on Friday, as the tournament’s other top contenders won’t be as wasteful as Castres were.