Inspirational Scott Fardy the key to Leinster victory
Ability to grind out win from 17-3 down – and with Sexton injured – shows side’s progress
Leinster’s Dan Leavy passes to Luke McGrath which led to Leinster’s crucial try. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster 22 Exeter Chiefs 17
Victory tops a phenomenal month for Leinster rugby only weakened by Johnny Sexton’s concussion.
But that’s part of their new strength. Guided by Isa Nacewa’s flawless place kicking, they ground out a fourth win from four pool games despite trailing 17-3, a deficit that seemed insurmountable until Nacewa’s two penalties at the fag end of a tumultuous and vicious first half made it 17-9.
A monumental second 40 minutes followed. Amidst it all, Pascal Gaüzère could barely cope. The officials, including Television Match Official Eric Gauzins, put in an awful shift. The invisible offside line was just that. The English champions are privately seething with the Frenchman flashing Cian Healy a yellow card, and not red, for the forearm to the head of Tomas Francis on 17 minutes.
“No force, no speed so yellow,” Gaüzère reasoned.
Leinster were also blessed by all four officials missing a forward pass by Dan Leavy – sorry, the brilliant Dan Leavy – that sent Luke McGrath haring under the posts for the game’s defining score on 65 minutes.
New Leinster have rediscovered the dominant swagger of bygone Schmidt years. Scott Fardy’s presence helps. The world class Wallaby blindside has quickly grown into a marvellous acquisition at lock. Fardy keeps James Ryan – sorry, the superbly talented James Ryan – on the bench but maybe that’s a good thing.
Leo Cullen may well build a second era of European conquest on the broad shoulders of these young men. Leavy, Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong; their seemingly limitless rise unfurls before our eyes.
But the potential for disaster, and ruin still exists. Sexton and concussion in the same sentence has not occurred regularly since 2015, when he was forced into a 12-week sabbatical following four head traumas. With only two minutes played in front of this eager 40,064 crowd, Sexton was forced off having been left stunned after his upright attempt at tackling Exeter flanker Matt Kvesic.
The ravenous Chiefs, stung by defeat at Sandy Park last week, had their first try two phases later when Sam Skinner carried Ringrose over the line.
Gareth Steenson made it 7-0 as Ross Byrne arrived to produce his best Sexton impression. A Head Injury Assessment was also needed for Byrne on six minutes following a cranium clash with Australian scrumhalf Nic White.
This created chaos in the Leinster ranks but that’s where they love to live and breathe nowadays. Nacewa slid into outhalf, old Auckland days revisited, embarking upon a ruthless gathering of points, despite the duffer’s technique, after Fardy won a penalty off a lazy Exeter runner.
Byrne, and even more worryingly the bloodied, White had both returned to the fray by 17 minutes of an interminably long first-half that took 54 minutes of real time to complete.
Each new collision was shuddering to witness from the upper deck.
All hands were firmly on the pumps when Healy moped away to the sin bin. Fergus McFadden was targeted aerially but managed to break even with Olly Woodburn despite the height disadvantage. McFadden, the great survivor, produced an inspired defensive display.
But Fardy was the man, only matched at the breakdown by Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Next, Sean Cronin went to ground after another legally high tackle on Don Armand left him gap toothed.
Exeter landed the sort of blow on 30 minutes that would have beaten Leinster if they could have added even one more score in the remaining 50 minutes.
They could not.
They possess a killer lineout maul when it is allowed set. Gaüzère really outdid himself when awarding the touch down to Cowan-Dickie, sin-binning Fardy for collapsing said maul yet failing to award a penalty try. Steenson added the conversion nonetheless.
Healy returned to produce a textbook turnover after Rob Kearney – nearing the peak of his powers and having improved his distribution – manhandled Lachie Turner.
A rare line break; the recovered Cronin thundered down the wing, and more importantly in field, after some delicate hands by Josh van der Flier before some excellent rucking and a Sean O’Brien carry led to Nacewa’s third penalty goal.
Still, the referee got an earful from the Leinster captain at half-time.
O’Brien came into the match injured and needed replacing on 55 minutes. Devin Toner also made way as Ryan followed Leavy into the fray.
These former St Michael’s captains went to work, beasting through the contact as the Leinster reserves turned the tide. Them and Fardy, and Tadhg Furlong’s 14 carries and van der Flier’s 16 tackles, while Ringrose started spearing his long frame across the gainline when it really mattered.
Leavy’s latest Wow! moment was preceded by relentless hard graft to allow Nacewa make it 17-12 and then 17-15 as Exeter faded.
Robbie Henshaw made a monstrous tackle, and the big centre will be feeling his banged up shoulder, to secure possession leading up to the precious try. James Tracy’s subtle pass had Leavy galloping through midfield, fending off Steenson’s soft grab and Harry Williams before his borderline offload freed McGrath.
The end proved as compelling as what came before. A wayward Luke McGrath box kick. A freakish Leavy turnover. A Tracy overthrow. A Jack McGrath lineout steal! James Ryan everywhere. Another ferocious Henshaw hit.
Finally, Ross Byrne’s clumsy tackle on Thomas Waldrom gave Exeter a chance to kick to the corner and snatch victory. But Fardy splintered their maul. Leinster penalty. What a player he is.
We waited for Cockles and Mussels to spontaneously ripple through the crowd. It never came yet the spirit of Molly Malone’s ditty was felt as people darted and rambled into the crisp Christmas night.
As for Sexton’s well-being?
“He’ll follow the return to play protocols,” said Cullen. “He’s fine.”
Leinster and Ireland still need him, just not as much as we all thought.
Scoring sequence - 2 mins: Skinner try, Steenson conversion, 0-7; 10: Nacewa penalty, 3-7; 28: Steenson penalty, 3-10; 31: Cowan-Dickie try, Steenson conversion, 3-17; 38: Nacewa penalty, 6-17; 40 (+1): Nacewa penalty, 9-17. Half-time: 9-17. 55: Nacewa penalty, 12-17; 63: Nacewa penalty, 15-17; 66: McGrath try, Nacewa conversion, 22-17.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, S Fardy; S O’Brien, J van der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: R Byrne for J Sexton 2 mins; J Larmour for R Byrne 6-15 mins; J McGrath for J van der Flier 18-27 mins; J Tracy for S Cronin; J McGrath for C Healy; D Leavy for S O’Brien; J Ryan for D Toner all 55 mins; A Porter for T Furlong 73 mins; J Gibson-Park for L McGrath 73 mins. Yellow cards: C Healy (Leinster) 17 mins; S Fardy (Leinster) 31 mins.
EXETER CHIEFS: L Turner; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt), N White; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, T Francis; M Lees, S Skinner; D Armand, M Kvesic, S Simmonds. Replacements: W Chudley for N White 6-17 and 63 mins; H Williams for T Francis 52 mins; A Hepburn for B Moon 57 mins; J Hill for Lees 60 mins; S Hill for I Whitten 63 mins; J Yeandle for L Cowan-Dickie 65 mins; T Waldrom for M Kvesic 68 mins; J Short for L Turner 74 mins.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France).