Leinster outmuscle Leicester as bonus-point win sets up home run

Leo Cullen’s side made light of 10-point first-quarter deficit to roar home to victory

Leicester 10 Leinster 27

Leinster’s victory was a touch more emphatic than the final score suggests but the aesthetics matter less when parsed against the outcome in registering a bonus-point victory, a landmark they reached with the final play of the match.

The Irish province negotiated an unbeaten passage through their four Champions Cup pool matches and, in the process, tallied enough points to ensure they won’t have to leave Dublin until the final at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium if they can continue unbeaten through the knockout phase of the tournament.

Leo Cullen’s charges gave the home side a 10-point start, conceded 13 penalties, a couple of lineouts went astray, were twice held up over the line and yet they shrugged off these setbacks with an impressive hard-nosed focus that relied hugely on the unrelenting physicality of a pack, that to a man, won the majority of the collision points on the gain-line, whether carrying or tackling.

Jamison Gibson-Park and Harry Byrne – once the outhalf relaxed into the game and stopped firing passes at inside shoulders that forced recipients to check – were bright and attentive to their duties, the three-quarter line, individually, found different ways to breach the Tigers’ defence, while Hugo Keenan was imperious in tidying up, in whatever capacity.


And then there was James Lowe. When his team needed big moments in attack, he was invariably the catalyst, his power and link play causing Leicester all manner of problems. Cullen acknowledged: “There was a lot of action on his side of the field. They tended to kick restarts to that side of the field.

“Having that left boot is hugely helpful for the team, his carrying game is good, very sound aerially, made a lot of positive impacts and [had] good moments in the game. Considering it is his second game back after 10 or 12 weeks off, [it was] really positive from James.”

Lowe was the official man-of-the-match, an accolade for which Joe McCarthy would have been in the frame. The young secondrow had a colossal game, splintering Leicester rucks, using power and footwork in carrying and dropping opponents instantly in the tackle.

The Leinster pack worked effectively as a unit but within that individuals stood out. Tadhg Furlong showed glimpses of his rollicking best, swatting away tacklers, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, and James Ryan were assiduous in their work while the backrow of Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris divvied up the list of afternoon chores.

Baird carried, van der Flier tackled, Doris poached, all three swapping in and out of their and each other’s roles. Leinster forced 11 turnovers at the breakdown to their opponents two, and that was a key metric.

Despite twice getting a team warning for repeated transgressions and suffering a penalty count that is a little high ordinarily, they consistently wrecked Leicester’s breakdown, slowing down the ball to a point where the home side were left with nothing more than a kicking option, or nicking it outright.

Leinster players came up with big plays at crucial times, Doris with a penalty turnover close to their posts, Ryan and Baird with a lineout steal or squeezing that set piece to make some of the Tigers’ possession unusable. The visitors also deserved more of a reward for a scrum that forced Leicester to buckle on a couple of occasions.

Leicester dominated the opening exchanges and were rewarded when Dan Kelly’s break down the short side culminated in a try for Hano Liebenberg, Handré Pollard kicked a superb conversion and tagged on a long-range penalty. It should have galvanised the home side but instead once Leinster discarded the shackles of indiscipline, they tucked into the Tigers, prising them open for a couple of tries before the interval.

It could have been more, Porter was held up over the line, but the home side couldn’t stop McCarthy from close-range soon after. Byrne kicked a conversion and a penalty before Leinster grabbed a second try, Lowe’s power, fend and offload set Garry Ringrose away.

The centre linked with Gibson-Park and after several skirmishes between the two packs, the Leinster scrumhalf’s bounce pass and Jordan Larmour’s exquisite footwork resulted in a try for the latter. Leinster went in 15-10 ahead at the interval. It might have been more but Matt Scott somehow managed to prevent a charging Doris from grounding the ball.

Sheehan’s try three minutes after the restart after Leicester had been reduced to 14-men when scrumhalf Tom Whiteley was binned, suggested that Leinster were set fair to grab the bonus point. It was anything but, the raft of replacements on both sides removed some of the cohesion and shape from the game. The home side had possession and position in field terms but weren’t consistently accurate enough to definitively break the blue line.

Byrne limped off, after aggravating his ankle issue – Cullen suggested that it is a knock rather than anything more sinister – on 64 minutes. Leinster conceded five of the next six penalties which forced them into prolonged goal-line defiance – the replacements maintained the energy and speed off the line in defence during that period – but Leicester had run out of ideas other than blunt force trauma.

Leinster emerged for one final sally in attack. Lowe intercepted a pass, Jack Conan broke into open field in the preamble to Doris crashing over for a try, much to the delight of a sizeable and vocal travelling support in a crowd of over 25,000. Mission accomplished.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 9 mins: Liebenberg try, Pollard con, 7-0; 20: Pollard pen, 10-0; 23: Byrne pen, 10-3; 28: McCarthy try, Byrne con, 10-10; 34: Larmour try, 10-15. Half-time: 10-15. 43: Sheehan try, Byrne con, 10-22; 80 (+4): Doris try, 10-27.

LEICESTER: F Steward; H Simmons, M Scott, D Kelly, O Hassell-Collins; H Pollard, T Whiteley; J Cronin, J Montoya (capt), J Heyes; H Wells, O Chessum; H Liebenberg, T Reffell, J Wiese.

Replacements: K Hatherell for Reffell (HIA, 30 mins); J Shillcock for Simmons (36); S Carter for Chessum (HIA, 42); F van Wyk for Cronin (52); W Hurd for Heyes, S Kata for Kelly (both 56); B Youngs for Whiteley (57); A Vanes for Montoya (78).

Yellow card: T Whiteley (42 mins).

LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; H Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; J McCarthy, J Ryan; R Baird, J van der Flier, C Doris.

Replacements: R Kelleher for Sheehan, M Ala’alatoa for Furlong, J Conan for Van der Flier (all 57 mins); S Prendergast for Byrne (64); R Molony for McCarthy, L McGrath for Gibson-Park (both 69); C Healy for Porter (71); T O’Brien for Larmour (75).

Yellow card: J Conan (65 mins).

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy).

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John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer