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.