On a damp night in Dublin, Leinster miss out on a chance to take all fifteen points on offer during this Six Nations window.
They never looked like losing, but they struggled to break down a strong Cheetah defence. The 19-7 win will frustrate the management, but a damp ball may be mostly to blame for all the missed opportunities.
The game opened brightly but a high tackle on Fergus McFadden by the Cheetah prop, Ox Nche, was spotted immediately by Owens, referee for the night, and he had no hesitation in showing a yellow card.
The officials took a second look after seeing the replay, which appeared to show the props shoulder making contact with McFadden’s head, but he stuck with his initial decision.
The penalty led to the night’s first try. Kicked into the corner, the resulting line out set up a good Leinster maul. Conor O’Brien took a pass at pace and had the strength to muscle over the line. Inside ten minutes, and at this point everything appeared to be on track for cushy home win.
The early kicking battles were dominated by Leinster, who seemed to make ground each time the ball hit a boot. This eventually gave them a foothold in Cheetah territory and it looked like the visitor might be in for a tough night.
Then a messy ruck messed everything up. The ball squirted out and was hacked down field. Maxwane, their winger, showed his incredible pace to get to it first and scored a soft try.
The kicking battle continued with the rain increasing. Knock-ons punctuated the first quarter. When Ox Nche returned from the sin bin it was clear Leinster had squandered the advantage.
Leinster kept the territory advantage and eventually forced a penalty. The maul was again dominant, but was held up over the line. Owens not bothering to worry the TMO about the decision having taken up a good position.
The Leinster scrum put on a lot of pressure. Gibson-Park moved to ball to the narrower side and a couple of passes out wide saw Adam Byrne touching down in the corner. Ross Byrne did not complete the conversion this time. 12-7.
Their line out started to come under a lot of under pressure, with Leinster pinching and disrupting a couple of set pieces as the second half closed.
The last quarter saw some excellent back line combinations between Conor O’Brien and Rory O’Laughlin. The inside centre was able to get such speedy passes to his colleague that it opened room for him to attack. Unfortunately the opportunities were squandered by knock-ons.
Another change in the closing minutes was that the Cheetahs began to get parity with the kicking tennis that threatened to bore the crowd.
The Leinster forwards appeared to agree. They took control and built up a half-dozen phases. But as soon as the ball hit a back it was kicked up field. This time there was momentum with Leinster, so they managed to gain field position but yet another knock on ended the attack.
The rain appeared to be falling only in the Cheetah half. Whenever Leinster carried into the rain they developed butter fingers. I counter three knock-ons in the last ten minutes.
Max Deegan would win the man of the match, and was active with some big carries early in the second half and made a lot of huge hits throughout the game. But his break early in the first half was ruined by a penalty at the ruck.
The Cheetahs had their own purple patch, keeping possession in Leinster’s half and drawing penalties. A promising line out maul was nudged into touch, but Owens deemed Leinster had committed an offence.
The attempt at goal was missed. It would have left the Cheetahs within two points. The crowd was beginning to notice and an edge was audible in the cheers around the ground.
Ross Byrne reacted quickly after the missed kick. His drop out was aimed at a trainer who had stayed on the pitch. His hasty departure distracted the full back who almost made a mess of fielding the ball, but recovered enough to clear it.
Leinster’s had a lot of chances to close the game out with line out mauls. The Cheetah defence was aggressive and messy and it looked like they were playing on the wrong side of the legal line, leaving Leinster players complaining to referee and touch judges to no avail.
The last try of the night was a fantastic score. A good line out for Leinster set up an attacking position inside the Cheetah half. Conor O’Brien’s quick hands got the ball out to Rory O’Laughlin who was position don the wing.
His chip through was expertly weighted, but needed another touch on the ground to get it into over the try line where he dropped on it to score. This time Ross Byrne made no mistake from touchline kick.
One of the positives tonight was that Leinster dealt professionally with all restarts, managing the exit from their half well.
Another highlight was the effective use of the cross field kick. Adam Byrne collected a few including a nice one in the last quarter of the match.
Unfortunately the mistakes kept building and the Cheetahs began to claw their way back up the pitch into Leinster’s half. All from mistakes by the home side. If the scoreline had been closer, it might have been more worrying. As it was they were only playing to earn the losing bonus point.
The visitors line out had descended into a complete mess and all their pressure was to no avail.
The closing minutes were all Leinster’s as they worked up the pitch. A penalty gave them a line out deep in the Cheetah twenty-two. There was no point in taking three points and everyone knew it.
Somehow the Cheetahs defended the Leinster maul, primarily by breaking it up before it fully set. The offside line was not enforced so their defenders closed on Leinster carries making forward progress impossible.
The game kind of fizzled out, like a firework display ruined by wet gunpowder, and the crowd left under hoods, hats, and umbrellas to see if their was any other entertainment on offer nearby.