Redemption tantalisingly out of reach for Leinster
Exeter Chiefs 20 Leinster 29:The king is dead, long live the king. The scramble to ascend to Leinster’s throne and wear the crown of Heineken Cup champions began in earnest yesterday afternoon when the province’s umbilical chord to the play-offs was snipped under local anaesthetic. Munster’s bonus point victory over Racing Metro 92 at Thomond Park ended their neighbours’ two-year reign at the top of European rugby.
Leinster did not abdicate their title. They fought courageously over the final two weekends of the pool stages to try and redress the damage of successive defeats to Clermont Auvergne in December but redemption languished tantalisingly out of reach. Their demise would have been unanimously celebrated by the eight clubs left in the tournament – as a backhanded compliment.
No one would have been too chipper about facing Joe Schmidt’s side in April, irrespective of venue. Fate can be a capricious opponent and there are snapshots of the campaign that will frustrate in reflection: injuries, a failure to nudge home their ascendancy in Clermont and an anaemic pre-Christmas try count. That they come so close to salvaging their elite tournament status speaks volumes for the character in the squad and management.
There were external factors too that shaped their demise on the final weekend, Toulon’s disturbing capitulation in Montpellier and Racing’s decision to bring a second string team to Thomond Park. Leinster too could also genuinely cavil about the officiating of French referee Romain Poite – his bags went missing and he had to borrow a whistle and boots – at Sandy Park.
There was no consistency of interpretation. Poite awarded the Chiefs a penalty try; he should have awarded the visitors at least two for deliberate transgressions.
Leinster shouldn’t be distracted by external failings because they had their fair share of internal ones. Sandy Park presented a microcosm of their campaign.
At times they produced some really excellent rugby, intelligent and well-executed but this was occasionally undermined by the slapdash and shoddy.
They were bullied at the breakdown, as they had been at the RDS in the first meeting. Exeter despite losing England international flanker Tom Johnson after 14 minutes – his replacement Ben White proved a capable deputy – effected several turnovers or forced Leinster to concede penalties for hanging on. Leinster’s lineout was a cause for concern and they over or under committed to rucks.
The visitors also struggled to manage Exeter’s driving maul from lineouts, which led to the Chiefs’ two tries. The first was scored by hooker Neil Clark, who was cleverly protected by his pack, but Leinster’s defending was porous and naïve. The second came from a 13-man lineout and drive, a la Warren Gatland’s days with Connacht and Ireland. The Irish province was deemed to have illegally halted the maul and referee Poite toddled off to the posts.
Those tries gave Exeter a foothold in the match and the English club proved doughty opponents over the 80 minutes producing an integrity of performance from which others could learn. Leinster were deserving winners and it was based on superior creativity and ability.
Their first three tries may have been scored by backs, Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll dotting down but the groundwork was completed by the pack. Cian Healy carried ball prodigiously, his back was festooned with Exeter players looking to hitch a lift. Seán O’Brien also swatted aside tacklers and make serious yardage in what was a fine performance from the whole pack.
Leinster captain Leo Cullen had an outstanding game, the high point of which might have been a deft offload for O’Driscoll’s try. There were little cameos here and there; Mike Ross giving the excellent Jamie Heaslip the perfect angle from a five-metre scrum or replacement Seán Cronin (Richardt Strauss had limped off at half-time with an ankle injury) and Kevin McLaughlin mowing down Exeter ball carriers.
Eoin Reddan’s quicksilver service was a key component in two of the tries and the scrumhalf ensured that his team retained an up-tempo rhythm. There will have been an element of frustration among the backs, that they weren’t given more ball as when they did get good possession they converted it into tries.
D’Arcy demonstrated good feet in claiming his try; Rob Kearney’s the by-product of O’Driscoll’s soft hands and Jonathan Sexton’s quick ones. The Irish province trailed 17-12 at the interval a reminder of costly lapses that undermined their dominance of possession and territory.
O’Driscoll and Heaslip crossed for tries to ensure the bonus point within 13 minutes of the resumption but just as Leinster needed to kick on and stockpile more five-point scores, their execution and decision making went on the blink.
Exeter dug in and there were no more tries. The visitors did come tantalisingly close on a number of occasions but to no avail, an image that could describe their campaign.