Discipline may be key as Leinster take aim at Exeter
It promises to be a taut, tight game with little between two sides at Sandy Park
Tadhg Furlong: his return to Leinster’s starting line-up adds significant ballast to their scrum which has been remodelled to telling effect. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Champions Cup quarter-final: Exeter Chiefs v Leinster
Kick-off: 5.30pm, Saturday. Venue: Sandy Park, Exeter. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5pm. On TV: Live on BT Sport.
Whether or not the best eight teams in Europe have reached the quarter-finals, we won’t be able to say the best four will make up the semis. This thoroughbred match-up takes care of that.
By any yardstick, the reigning champions of the Premiership and the Pro14, and also the European champions of 2020 and 2018, are considered two of the four favourites. Yet again, in the immediate aftermath of an Ireland-England Six Nations game, we have a heavyweight Anglo-Irish quarter-final, potentially made more relevant by a possible Lions tour.
Both teams come into this game with doubts as to whether they have been playing at their best but with the suspicion that they have primed themselves for this one. For two superbly-coached teams that also share a strong sense of local identity, winning cultures and mutual respect, this is their biggest game of the season to date, and how.
Little about the Pro14 will have prepared Leinster for this as Exeter will hardly offer the same gaps or space on the edges that they exploited against Munster. Furthermore, as they showed in recovering from a 14-0 deficit last week to score seven tries, the Chiefs can score in a variety of ways.
The one finished off by Tom O’Flaherty was a beautiful strike play and they’ve also fine-tuned their access to the five metre zone with launch plays to take them to the opposition posts. Jonny Gray and Jonny Hill form a powerful second row, Sam Simmonds is their talisman and his brother, Joe, a clever playmaker.
Then again, maybe the flip side is true too, for Leinster also possess a highly developed attacking game and have their share of players in a rich vein of form, be it Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw or others.
Reinstating Scott Fardy alongside Devin Toner is testimony to how important the lineout and mauls will be. Exeter had a few wobbles last week and any steals or disruptions on their throw could be gold dust.
The fears for Leinster emanate from the memory of their defeats by Saracens in the final two years ago and even more so last September’s quarter-final loss to the same opposition – two of just three defeats in their last 27 European games.
However that latter defeat was largely founded on Leinster’s scrum woes and some interpretations by the pedantic Pascal Gauzère. It also proved something of a watershed, for both Leinster and Ireland have remodelled their scrums since then to telling effect.
While James Ryan, Caelan Doris and Garry Ringrose are all missing, Tadhg Furlong has since returned, nor did Ronan Kelleher start that day, and Mathieu Raynal is regarded as a good scrummaging referee. Indeed, Lyon even had a little joy in this department last week.
Both sides have a high conversion rate from entries into the opposition 22, with modern refereeing almost always favouring the attacking team, be it allowing them to latch before the carry or go off their feet, or penalising the defending team for offside.
Hence, the battle in the middle third of the pitch will likely have huge ripple effects on the outcome, with the game potentially hinging on a scrum penalty on halfway.
The importance of discipline in the middle third of the pitch is heightened by this and, hence, as Leo Cullen said “how you manage the game there, and not play yourself into trouble”.
Hopefully it won’t come down to an officiating decision or two, or worse still a red card. It could also pivot on a huge defensive set close to the line and/or a jackal over the ball.
One little moment here or there.
It’s hard not to see this being a taut, tight game, conceivably with never more than a score between them, thus making it well-nigh impossible to call.
“Don’t look back in anger,” quipped Cullen yesterday, but this is the tournament Leinster judge themselves by and the pain of that loss to Saracens is fresher than normally would be the case.
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Ryan Baird, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Dave Kearney.
EXETER CHIEFS: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds (capt), Jack Maunder; Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tomas Francis, Jonny Gray, Jonny Hill, Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams, Sam Skinner, Jannes Kirsten, Stu Townsend, Harvey Skinner, Ian Whitten.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).
Forecast: Leinster to win.