Leinster booked their place in the Champions Cup semi-final after beating Bath 18-15 at the Aviva Stadium. Ian Madigan was the key man for Leinster as his six penalties were enough to see the home side over the line.
Bath, led by hugely influential out-half George Ford, ran the home side close but Leinster’s dominance up front and their accuracy from the boot of Madigan was just too much to overcome.
The home sides form leading into the game had been poor. Only four wins in nine games since the turn of the year wasn’t very convincing.
Bath had managed to turn around a disastrous start to 2015 from which they lost four games on the bounce to win their last two games before today.
The visitors last visited the Aviva Stadium to face Leinster back in 2011 when the home side ran in seven tries in a hugely impressive performance on their way to claiming a third Heineken Cup title.
The game took some time to spring into life as both teams looked to find their rhythm in the opening exchanges. Leinster clearly wanted to impose themselves upfront and gain territory while Bath looked to get their exciting backline into the game early.
Ian Madigan was given his first chance at goal when Leinster showed dominance in the scrum and forced the whistle from Jérôme Garcès. Madigan duly delivered with his effort to get Leinster up and running.
George Ford then had his opportunity to cancel out Madigan’s effort but his sailed wide of the uprights.
The game finally burst into life when a sloppy clearing kick form Madigan failed to find touch. His chase wasn’t what it should have been as he missed the covering tackle and allowed Bath a chance to strike. They shifted the ball from side to side before Ford penetrated the Leinster line and threw a dummy to slide passed the hapless defence and touch down for the opening try. His attempt at the conversion should have been converted but he failed to add the extra two.
The next ten minutes would be crucial as Leinster regrouped to take control of the first half. Dominance in the scrum and upfront-allowed Madigan to add another four penalties as his perfect record from the tee remained intact throughout the whole first half.
In between all this Anthony Watson was fullback turned villain when from a restart he jumped for the ball with Rob Kearney and the contact resulted in Kearney landing badly. Garcès consulted with his assistant and adjudged it to be a yellow card offence. Replays showed the decision might have been a touch harsh.
Leinster controlled the remainder of the first half and their physicality was underlined by a huge hit by Fergus McFadden in the last play of the game as he got one back on Watson with a bone shuddering tackle. The noise from the crowd was deafening as both teams ran down the tunnel.
The home side led at the break 15-5 and looked to be moving up through the gears.
The second half began at a ferocious pace as Leinster looked to score early. They infiltrated the Bath half but couldn’t find any gaps in the defence. McFadden was involved again in another huge collision. This time on the end of a big tackle from Kyle Eastmond. The shot caught McFadden on the head and he couldn’t continue after treatment. Zane Kirchner took his place on the wing.
Leinster came straight back at Bath after the incident and some lovely lines of running and hands from the backs saw Kearney put substitute Kirchner away down the wing but the covering tacklers did enough to put him into touch just before the line.
Both teams looked to run at every opportunity as the shackles that seemed to stifle much of the first half began to come off. Bath struck first however as Ford once again showed how dangerous he could be in open play as he received the ball just outside the Leinster 22. An arching run saw him round the attempted tackle from Cian Healy. He strode right up to the Leinster line and flicked the ball back inside to his supporting captain. Stuart Hooper had a long enough reach to get the ball over the line. This time Ford made no mistake with the conversion. Leinster’s lead was cut to just three.
The crowd roared Leinster on after the disappointment from conceding and it didn’t take long for another penalty to come their way. Another dominant scrummaging effort this time with Marty Moore on the tight side saw Madigan score his sixth penalty of the day.
Jimmy Gopperth thought he was gifted an easy five points when he picked up a knock-on from Matt Banahan on the half way and sprinted towards the Bath line. Garcès adjudged the final pass to Banahan as forward and brought play back for a Leinster scrum.
Watson desperately wanted to make up for his earlier indiscretion and showed how lethal he could be in open play when he ran out of his own 22 all the way up to the Leinster half, jinking past Leinster players with ease. The ball would eventually find Horacio Agulla in space but the winger couldn’t hold onto the pass from Ford as the attack broke down.
The game began to break up in the closing twenty minutes as both sides looked to move the ball wide and exploit the tired bodies.
The home side showed a touch of class when a mighty cheer went up for Irish legend Peter Stringer entering the game from the Bath bench.
Bath kept pressing and forced another error from Leinster as Ford converted the resulting penalty to make it 18-15 to Leinster heading into the final five minutes.
The home fans were on the edge of their seats as Bath held onto the ball but couldn’t find a gap through the Leinster line.
Eoin Reddan calamitous decision making almost gave Bath the victory when he broke from a Leinster scrum in their own 22 and had his clearing kick charged down. He ball bounced towards the Leinster line but quick thinking from Gopperth allowed him win the foot race and save Reddan’s blushes.
Bath just couldn’t get close enough as try scorer Hooper went in at the side of the ruck, giving away a penalty to end their chances of a famous win. Jamie Heaslip punted the ball into touch as Leinster escaped to fight another day in the competition.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Ian Madigan, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Jordi Murphy, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Tom Denton, 20 Dominic Ryan, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Gordon D’Arcy, 23 Zane Kirchner.
15 Anthony Watson, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Matt Banahan, 10 George Ford, 9 Micky Young, 8 Leroy Houston, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Carl Fearns, 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Stuart Hooper (c), 3 Kane Palma-Newport, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Paul James.
16 Ross Batty, 17 Nick Auterac, 18 Max Lahiff, 19 Matt Garvey, 20 Alafoti Faosiliva, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Sam Burgess, 23 Tom Homer.