A spirited Northampton Saints display was not quite enough in Dublin as the men in Black, Green and Gold were beaten in their Heineken Champions Cup clash against Leinster.
An incisive attacking showing contained three tries from Fraser Dingwall, Tom James and Nick Isiekwe at the RDS Arena, paired with an physical defensive effort allowed Saints to frustrate their hosts for large parts of the contest.
The scores from Dingwall and James came as part of an impressive response to a period of significant pressure from Leinster early in the first half. Saints built into the game well off the back of that, with brutal physicality around the fringes forcing a number of handling errors from the hosts and keeping Chris Boyd’s side within touching distance at the break.
Isiewke’s scoop and score in the second half kept Saints in the contest, only for the hosts to ultimately pull away through the boot of Ross Byrne.
Leinster hit the front in the third minute. Off a midfield scrum, quick hands through the backline sent Gary Ringrose breaking into the 22. James got back in time to make a good scrambling tackle, only for Josh Murphy to power his way through a phase later.
Moments later it took a big defensive set from Saints to keep the score at 7-0. Defending a scrum inside the 22, Dingwall made an excellent read to smash Ross Byrne back behind the gain line, allowing fly-half George Furbank to get in over the ball and win the penalty.
The pressure from Leinster was relentless though. A free-kick at a scrum turned possession over inside the 22 and Leinster went quickly. Cian Healy was the one to ultimately barrel his way over from close range.
After showing his ability to make defensive reads, Dingwall popped up down the other end of the park to get Saints on the board. Off a scrum inside the 22, his brilliant diagonal line from deep cut through the Leinster line for the try under the posts – Rory Hutchinson converted to make the score 14-7.
Ross Byrne tacked on a penalty for an early tackle to stretch Leinster’s lead to ten, but Saints continued to pressure, and were rewarded with their second try.
After a Furbank grubber into the corner, Isiekwe proved a nuisance at the lineout, beating the jump of James Ryan to disrupt the throw. That led to Healy being caught behind his own line, offering a fantastic platform with the 5m scrum.
James cashed in beautifully, sniping off the base to power through two attempted tackles for another score under the sticks – his first in a Saints jersey. Hutchinson’s second conversion of the day narrowed the gap to 17-14.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were immediately called back into defensive action after a break from deep by Josh van der Flier. The score looked to be on once Leinster recycled, only for the efforts of Api Ratuniyarawa to force a spill from Ryan Baird.
Despite another resolute defensive showing to hold up Andrew Porter over the line, Leinster did manage to get their third with the last play of the half. Jamison Gibson-Park’s speculative pass to Dave Kearney out wide sat up perfectly after taking a touch off Ryan Olowofela, allowing the wing to dive over in the corner and make it 22-14 at the break.
Leinster had their bonus-point score early in the second half. A scrum close to the Saints 22 wheeled around to the left, opening a gap for Gibson-Park who showed a clean pair of heels to get to the line.
The response from Saints could not have been more timely. Looking to clear with a box kick off the restart, Gibson-Park saw his effort charged down by Isiekwe. The back-row won the race to the loose ball inside the 22, scooping it off the turf to score out wide. The wind pushed Hutchinson’s kick wide, leaving the score at 29-19.
Saints continued to threaten with ball in hand as the half wore on. Tom Collins chipped ahead from the backfield, racing onto his own kick to break into Leinster territory. Quick ball looked to have the hosts on the back foot, only for a side-entry to bring the attack to a halt.
Furbank and Hutchinson looked very dangerous in midfield when given quick ball. The Scot threw a beautiful delayed pass to Dingwall to cut the defence open once more, taking play into the 22. A penalty came from the following ruck, but a loose lineout let the hosts off the hook.
However with ten minutes remaining, Leinster’s lead stood at 35-19 following two Ross Byrne penalties.
In the closing stages, a strong maul defence held up a Leinster drive deep in the 22, allowing for one last Saints attack from deep. Taqele Naiyaravoro threatened with a half-break out wide, but the attack came to an end once Piers Francis’ pass went into touch with the clock in the red.
Attentions now return to the Gallagher Premiership for Chris Boyd and his squad, with Saints back in action at home to Worcester on Boxing Day.