Leinster to wash away bad Bath memories

Back to Bath. Back to the grim reality that was Leinster’s last visit.

It’s three years now since the province paid a call to The Rec, their European hopes and dreams left in ruins behind them afterwards. Hammered at home by Wasps the week before, a second straight defeat confirmed what everyone knew: They were a long way down from the summit.

Jonathan Sexton had spoken that week of a World Cup hangover for the Ireland contingent, Leo Cullen was just a wet week into the role as head coach and Stuart Lancaster’s arrival and spark was still another 11 months down the road.

image
Leinster taking on Bath three years ago.

Leinster’s scrum was mashed that day. They conceded seven penalties and 16 of Bath’s 19 points came from those indiscretions. Their lineout wasn’t up to much either. Cullen made mention of it all this week with a wry smile and a nod to the pressures of the time.

“It was only six or seven games in at that point,” he said of what were his baby steps as boss. “It takes a while to change… and you guys aren’t that patient sometimes. You expect it straight away. It takes a bit longer.”

Looking back, there was actually a significant degree of understanding at his predicament. Cullen’s swift elevation into the top job came after just one year as an assistant to the departed Matt O’Connor, after all, but the question as to whether he was up to it still had to be asked.

That the raw materials might be there was never in doubt.

This observer’s match report, and others, touched on the glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel in the performances of youngsters such as Luke McGrath and Josh van der Flier and the role they could play in regenerating a side that had lost its way.

Some of those young guys you mentioned, they’re in the system, they know the way we’re trying to do things that little bit better,” said Cullen at the time. “So, again, we’ll get better. We will get better. So I would ask people just to keep the faith.

There are no Doubting Thomases anymore.

Three years on and van der Flier and Luke McGrath are bona fide Ireland internationals and core cogs in the Leinster machine.

The return pool game against Bath in Dublin in 2015-16 would see a whole host of newbies flood into the side after them and the ripple effect has been overwhelming. Leinster have hardly looked back and they pitch up in Bath a totally different prospect. In every way. Of the 23 on duty for that loss in England’s southwest in 2015, only seven will feature here.

image
van der Flier

“The group is so different now,” said Cullen. “It’s in a very, very different place. In many ways there was a lack of confidence, along with a number of other factors, like changing structures and us taking time to adapt.

“It’s hard to compare, but it’s always worth remembering and I certainly remember those days well.”

If one loss teaches us multiple more lessons than any batch of victories, then Leinster will have spent weeks swotting up on their last reversal. It was recorded in round two of Europe, in Toulouse, just shy of two months ago.

Leinster, as now, approached that one with their tails up and everyone telling them they were cock of the walk, but they started badly, allowed the home crowd the sniff of blood and then let slip the win after spending 45 minutes making up for their early errors.

A repeat today isn’t going to happen.

Bath, for a start, are ordinary. Midtable in a Premiership packed with mediocrity, they are one of a band of supposed big guns looking anxiously over their shoulder at the trap door rather than a play-off spot. They haven’t won a game since September.

READ MORE: To the rest of Europe, here’s a warning: keep an eye on Munster

They are a club in limbo. Head coach Todd Blackadder has one foot out the door, the puzzle over The Rec and its redevelopment is years in the making and not a whole lot closer to a resolution, and the squad is more a smattering of quality individuals than a team.

Leinster are without Robbie Henshaw, Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath, but Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy, both of whom missed the loss in Toulouse, come back into a side that has shown an emotionless appetite for destruction of late regardless of personnel.

The youngsters who shone so brightly in PRO14 surrounds in recent weeks have been returned to the nursery for now.

Noel Reid will likely be targeted defensively in midfield and the bench lacks a certain pizzazz, but neither of those points will be fatal.

Rain is forecast on a riverside pitch that is heavy at the best of times, but Leinster can grind out wins better than anyone. Or they can fillet an opponent with a James Lowe break or Jordan Larmour weave.

Whatever the method, there should only be one result.

imageimage