Even by their usual high standards Leinster could not have launched their defence of the Champions Cup in more emphatic style. This runaway eight-try win over a depleted Wasps represented a major statement of intent and the Irish province have now equalled their best-ever run in Europe with 10 successive victories.
By any standards this was a horribly one-sided rout, with Wasps receiving a brutal reminder that this competition is a step up on the Premiership. By the final quarter Leinster were delivering a virtual masterclass, with a back-flipped pass through his own legs by Johnny Sexton to create his side’s fifth try merely one highlight among many.
By the end there were a pair of tries apiece for scrum-half Luke McGrath and wing James Lowe, fitting reward for a totally dominant team display. Leinster used to have an average record against Premiership opposition but have now registered seven straight wins over English clubs in Europe. This was also Wasps’ heaviest defeat in their long and eventful tournament history.
Even taking into account the absence of several key figures, this was as sobering a Dublin night as Wasps have ever endured. It was in this same city 15 years ago that they enjoyed one of their finest hours, beating Munster in a humdinger of a semi-final, but that era feels an increasingly long time ago.
“We fell away badly in the last 20 minutes,” admitted Dai Young, Wasps’ director of rugby. “If you give them the ball they’re really going to hurt you.”
If a fit Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson, Jake Cooper-Woolley and Jimmy Gopperth and an available Nathan Hughes would have helped, few teams in Europe would have found an answer to the questions Leinster are posing. Their strength in depth is beginning to verge on the ridiculous, with even proven Lions such as Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath only making the bench. Even after Dan Leavy was forced to withdraw shortly before kick-off, they were still able to boast 14 Ireland internationals in their starting XV and almost three years have passed since their last home defeat in Europe.
Despite conditions in Dublin being significantly calmer than on the opposite side of the Irish Sea, this was never going to be a serene evening for the visitors. Willie le Roux is used to daunting environments, having lined up against the All Blacks in Pretoria last Saturday, but the South African full-back was given scant opportunity to ease himself back into the club fray. Inside six minutes the home hooker Sean Cronin surged clean through a hole around the side of an attacking ruck on Wasps’ 22 and no-one, Le Roux included, was able to catch him. Cronin’s starting point did not appear entirely legal but the officials awarded it regardless.
With the territory and possession stats also lop-sided from early on, Wasps needed someone in place of Hughes and Launchbury to make some hard carrying yards. For that to happen, though, they had to keep hold of the ball for a decent period, not an easy task against such settled, organised opponents. With the breeze at the visitors’ backs, a solitary penalty for Sopoaga in the opening 40 minutes was a distinctly meagre return.
The hosts might also have had more points, failing to capitalise on a couple of long-range breaks from Lowe and Robbie Henshaw. Wasps’ defence was proving spirited and committed; the question was how long could they keep it up? Their prospects were further diminished when Sopoaga was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-down in added time just before the interval, offering Leinster a chance to surge forward again and create enough space for the alert Luke McGrath to wriggle over.
Wasps were again entitled to a degree of sympathy, with replays showing Cronin’s deflected pass was clearly forward before Sopoaga touched it. On the flip side, the half-time stats revealed Leinster had enjoyed 74 % territory and had forced their opponents to make 139 tackles. To describe Wasps as unlucky to be 14-3 down at the break would be stretching it.
Barely a minute into the second half the point was swiftly underlined, Sexton feeding a charging Lowe with a smart inside ball to send the Kiwi weaving through the scrambling cover from almost 50 metres out. Sexton’s third successful conversion further extended the gap and Wasps, for all their rearguard defiance, were never going to close it.
With Tadhg Furlong producing a marvellous one-handed offload to send the ebullient Lowe away for the bonus-point score, the only question was whether Leinster would hit 50 points. Jordan Larmour and Henshaw both collected eye-catching scores and, sure enough, Jack McGrath collected his side’s eighth try in the last minute. It is going to go take a monumentally good team to stop the champions enjoying another all-conquering campaign.
Leinster: R Kearney (Tomane, 54); Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton (Byrne, 70), L McGrath (McCarthy, 63); Healy (J McGrath h/t), Cronin (Tracy, 56), Furlong (Porter, 56), Toner (Fardy, 64), Ryan, Ruddock, Van der Flier (O’Brien, 57), Conan.
Tries: Cronin, L McGrath 2, Lowe 2, Larmour, Henshaw, J McGrath. Cons: Sexton 5, Byrne.
Wasps: Le Roux; Bassett, De Jongh, Le Bourgeois, Daly; Sopoaga (Searle, 77), Simpson (Hampson, 69); Zhvania (Harris, 54), Taylor (Cruse, 59), Brookes (Stuart, 54), Rowlands (Myall, 59), Gaskell, Shields, Young, Carr (Johnson, 59).
Sin-bin: Sopoaga 40.
Referee: R Poite (France).