Leinster draw in Castres to all but secure home Champions Cup quarter-final

Castres 24

Leinster 24

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Pierre Antoine

LEINSTER FINISHED THE game under siege on their own tryline against a spirited, incisive and aggressive Castres, but they held out to all but secure a home Champions Cup quarter-final.

Robbie Henshaw scores his second. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Though they are not mathematically certain of that home draw for April’s first knockout round, it would take a Connacht bonus-point win in Toulouse with a 62-point margin on Sunday to deny Leo Cullen’s men. An unlikely prospect.

Despite a brace of tries for Robbie Henshaw and a third from Dan Leavy, Leinster missed several other fine scoring chances in Castres and will be disappointed with many elements of their defensive display.

Indeed, it was a disjointed performance from the eastern province, particularly after they lost out-half Johnny Sexton to a fresh calf injury.

The Ireland international was forced off in the 20th minute, leaving the field in frustration, with Joe Schmidt surely watching on at home with some concern. Sexton is only recently back from a long-term spell out with a hamstring issues and is now a worry for the start of the Six Nations on 4 February.

Leinster also lost captain Isa Nacewa to injury in the first half, while their efforts were not helped by a handful of shaky individual performances.

And yet, they are essentially over the line and into the quarter-finals.

Munster, Saracens and Clermont may all pass them and ensure Leinster finish the pool stages as fourth seeds for the quarter-finals, but the home draw is vital.

Johnny Sexton watched most of the game from the sidelines after his latest injury. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Whoever they are to face at that stage, Cullen’s men will need to be a hell of a lot better than they were at Stade Pierre Antoine this evening.

Their defence was porous and gave up easy metres, and while their attack did create 10 clean linebreaks, their finishing in behind the Castres line failed them too often.

Castres felt there should have been an early yellow card for Nacewa’s hit on wing Julien Caminati, but referee Greg Garner and TMO David Rose concluded that the Leinster captain had wrapped his right arm in the tackle.

Nacewa’s clever grubber soon after ensured fine field position for the Leinster attack and they drew an offside penalty to allow Sexton to make it 3-0 nearing the 10-minute mark.

Within 90 seconds, Caminati dropped a pass wide on the right near the halfway line, with Garry Ringrose quickest to react, scooping the ball wonderfully off the deck and looking to immediately offload to Henshaw on his left.

Caminati managed to paw the ball down but it bounced up for the onrushing Henshaw, who gathered 45 metres or so from the Castres tryline and hit full stride on a diagonal run from left to right, taking him beyond the despairing tackle of Castres out-half Julien Dumora to score. Sexton converted for a handsome 12-0 lead with 12 minutes gone.

Henshaw stretches out to score the opening try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Despite that dire start, Castres rebounded well, powering their way into Leinster territory and creating a 20th-minute try for scrum-half Antoine Dupont.

Sexton shot out of the defensive line looking for a ball-and-all hit on Castres fullback Pierre Berard but missed his tackle, allowing the Top 14 outfit to break down the left touchline and into the 22.

After some swift recycling, the clever Dupont darted to the inside shoulder of Devin Toner on the right fringe of a ruck and broke through, swerving his way past last defender Nacewa, with out-half Julien Dumora adding the conversion.

Adding injury to the insult of conceding, Sexton limped off with his calf injury, showing clear frustration as he left the pitch.

Replacement out-half Ross Byrne nearly created a try within three minutes of being on the pitch, kicking deep left for Rory O’Loughlin to chase. The Leinster left wing looked like he would edge the race to dot the inviting ball down but Berard beat him to it, nudging the ball dead with his foot.

A linebreak from the sizzling David Smith in between Ross Molony and Toner resulted in Leinster giving up a kickable penalty as they failed to roll away in their scrambling efforts, with Dumora on target for 10-10.

The home side then muscled in front for the first time as number eight Steve Mafi began to have a big influence in the ball-carrying department. Garry Ringrose missed his tackle on Florian Vialelle inside the Leinster 22, with the Castres centre scorching through to draw the last man and feed Smith in the left corner. Dumora converted again.

Smith scores Castres’ second try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With Leinster out-half Byrne missing a penalty just before the break, Leo Cullen’s men went into half time trailing 17-10 and also minus their skipper Nacewa, who was forced off with the dead leg he had carried into this game.

A Ringrose linebreak was promising early in the second half, but the centre’s pass to the supporting Luke McGrath was wayward and went to ground.

The Leinster reaction to the error was exemplary, as they scored directly on first phase at a scrum a minute later. Powerful right wing Adam Byrne broke the tackle of Dumora to the left of the scrum, offloading to Henshaw on his left to finish, with Byrne converting.

Rob Kearney – on for Nacewa – was next to break the Castres defence, but scrum-half McGrath dropped the pass when he should have held.

Castres accepted that let-off gratefully and turned the aggression levels back up when they re-entered the Leinster 22, going through phase after bludgeoning phase until Samoan-born wing Smith picked and burst over from a metre out, sniping between Luke McGrath and replacement prop Jack McGrath.

Dumora’s third conversion put Castres into a 24-17 lead with just under 30 minutes remaining, but they made life difficult for themselves with a yellow card to fullback Berard soon after.

In truth, had he not killed the ball on the Castres tryline after a Jack McGrath carry, Leinster would have scored on the next phase. And the try came anyway a minute later, as the Irish province hammered at Castres’ line until sub back row Dan Leavy – just on the pitch – barrelled over from close range.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Byrne added the two points to level the scores at 24-24 heading into the closing 15 minutes.

There was another missed opportunity for Leinster after they won a turnover in their own 22 and shifted the ball wide right to Adam Byrne. The wing launched a kick downfield with plenty of chasers in pursuit.

But the bouncing ball beat Kearney and the Ringrose knocked-on as he looked to gather it in. Another chance gone and Leinster had to defend desperately to ensure the draw.

CASTRES: Pierre Berard (yellow card ’62); Julien Caminati, Afusipa Taumoepeau (Thomas Combezou ’36 to ’40, permanent ’70), Florian Vialelle, David Smith; Julien Dumora (Benjamin Urdapilleta ’63), Antoine Dupont (Julien Seron ’61); Antoine Tichit (Mihaita Lazar ’40), Brice Mach (Jody Jenneker ’61), Daniel Kotze (Damien Tussac ’40); Victor Moreaux (Loic Jacquet ’18 to ’24, permanent ’70), Rodrigo Capo Ortega (captain); Yannick Caballero, Alexandre Bias (Anthony Jelonch ’61), Steve Mafi.

LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa (captain) (Rob Kearney ’36); Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Rory O’Loughlin; Johnny Sexton (Ross Byrne ’20), Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park ’61); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’48), Richardt Strauss (James Tracy ’48), Tadhg Furlong (Michael Bent ’74); Ross Molony (Mike McCarthy ’76 (yellow card ’77)), Devin Toner; Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier (Dan Leavy ’61), Jamie Heaslip.

Referee: Greg Garner [RFU].

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