Leinster defy Sexton departure to land momentous Exeter win
Outhalf forced off with head injury but hosts show huge steel in second half at the Aviva
Luke McGrath crosses Leinster’s match-winning score. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Leinster 22 Exeter 17
It was a remarkable game of rugby that produced a staggering win for Leinster in which they managed to rise above the imperfections of the first half to eke out a victory that scarcely looked plausible at various junctures in a wonderfully abrasive, utterly riveting Champions Cup match.
The Exeter Chiefs played like the champions of England, particularly in the first half, and could have been even further ahead; the integrity of their performance properly represented the players, coaching team and club. Against most other clubs it would have sufficed to win the match and probably cart off a bonus point to boot.
Leinster remain in control of the pool, something they’ll hope to maintain when the tournament resumes in Januar,y and they face games against the Glasgow Warrios at home and Montpellier away. The same couldn’t be said of the performance on the day, that was a great deal more fraught.
It wasn’t simply that the home side clawed back a 17-3 deficit, that they managed to assimilate the loss of Jonathan Sexton after just two minutes, or that they played 20-minutes of the first half with 14 players, it was the manner in which managed to turn around an off colour opening half in which they were comprehensively outplayed for large tranches, missing tackles, racking up numerous basic mistakes and struggling to make a dent on the Exeter Chiefs defence.
The outlook couldn’t have appeared bleaker. Hanging onto the coattails of the rampant English club initially through the boot of captain, Isa Nacewa, that saw them go in at the interval 17-9 in arrears, the Leinster coaching team recalibrated the game-plan, scoring 10 points and holding the English champions scoreless.
So what changed? The home side who had struggled to get any positive gain-lines managed to do so principally through the hard graft of the pack, outstanding work in this respect from centres Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, better protection of ruck ball, the impact of the bench and a much better husbandry of possession.
The try that won Leinster the game in the 66th minute owed so much to a couple of replacements, hooker James Tracy’s soft hands and Dan Leavy’s strength leg drive and peripheral vision. There might have been a touch of good fortune as Leavy’s pass to the try scorer, Luke McGrath, might have been adjudged forward but it was one of the few breaks that the home side got from referee Pascal Gauzere.
At that point Leinster had chipped their way back to 17-15 behind, fighting for every centimetre of turf, unswerving in a relentless intensity underpinned by a huge work-rate and improved accuracy. The Chiefs’ blinked first, as they began to tire and the slew of penalties that had gone against Leinster suddenly reversed in the opposite direction.
The first half was something of a horror show from a Leinster perspective, two tries conceded, two yellow cards, second best at the breakdown, kicking away possession, which at that point wasn’t easy to come by and periodically too passive in line speed when there were opportunities to coral Exeter Chiefs’ players behind the gain-line.
They missed too many straight-up tackles and discipline was a real issue not just in the yellow cards for Cian Healy and Scott Fardy but at the breakdown; Leinster conceded seven penalties in the first half and most of the transgressions were in this facet of the game.
Losing Jonathan Sexton (failed HIA) after just two minutes was a huge handicap and then his replacement Ross Byrne for nine minutes after a sickening accidental collision of heads with Chiefs’ scrumhalf Nic White, who also had to leave the pitch, hardly helped their rhythm. Byrne did return.
In contrast the Chiefs were slick, sharp and accurate, using the full expanse of the pitch, varying the point of attack, and winning quick, front-foot ball that put Leinster under massive pressure. Perhaps the best indication of the Chiefs superiority was that after 27 minutes Leinster had made 98 tackles, 11 missed, to the Chiefs 14 (3) and the visitors had 87 per cent territory dominance.
The visitors were dominant in the air, none more so than Olly Woodburn, so quite why Leinster persevered with sending high balls down his wing was mystifying. Leinster will be livid with referee Pascal Gauzere and his officials and with some justification; the Chiefs were persistently offside in the midfield and it beggared belief that none of the three managed to consistently spot this. There was also a lack of consistency in interpreting the same offences. Healy got a yellow card, Don Armand didn’t, both leading with the shoulder to the face/neck area.
The Chiefs though had some legitimate complaints too in terms of several decisions, not least the try; it was difficult to tell in real time and from the camera angles offered, although Leavy’s hands appeared to go backwards.
The English club set the tone from the outset, scoring the first of two tries inside two minutes and it was a microcosm of their excellence in the opening 40-minutes. Sam Skinner barrelled his way over from close range with Steenson adding the conversion, a reward for 90 seconds of excellent rugby. Sexton suffered a clash of heads with Matt Kvesic in the build up to the try and didn’t return after undergoing a HIA.
Leinster’s afternoon got worse on six minutes as Ross Byrne and White had a second clash of heads from a Rob Kearney up and under; however both subsequently returned to the pitch. Nacewa reduced the deficit with a penalty but when Gauzere went to the TMO to check Healy for an illegal barge at ruck, making contact with his shoulder to head area of Cheifs’ hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, the verdict was a yellow card.
Leinster were living off their wits and scraps of possession. Steenson kicked a penalty on 28-minutes and from another transgression three minutes later the Chiefs’ outhalf drives his side into the home side’s 22. The lineout maul is beautifully constructed and culminates with the outstanding Luke Cowan-Dickie - he was a thorn in Leinster’s side all afternoon - touching down.
Steenson tagged on the conversion and at 17-3 Leinster were in serious trouble. Two penalties before half-time saw them pass a mini test of character and provided a little impetus going into the break. Suddenly Leinster players began to break the first line of defence through Henshaw, Ringrose, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney, and they were getting more traction of the edges of the breakdown. They also protected possession with greater efficiency.
Conan’s break ended with McFadden being denied but an earlier transgression allowed Nacewa to kick his second penalty of the half; at 17-15 down, the Chiefs began to feel the pace. Leinster’s revival may have started in the foothills but they reached the summit in the 66th minute when Luke McGrath scampered under the posts.
There were half a dozen moments that could have pushed the contest either way, Van der Flier’s tackle on Ian Whitten that thwarted the Chiefs’ in the Leinster 22, Ringrose’s intercept, Jack McGrath’s lineout steal, Leavy’s penalty turnover at a ruck. Even then the home side had to survive one final assault but having kicked a penalty into the Leinster 22 the visitors were penalised for blocking at the lineout.
Leinster’s bench made a massive difference. Finishing on the right side of the score-line permits a slightly more benign review but for all their performance blips the character that Leinster demonstrated to rescue this match should stand to them going forward.
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 Sexton 2 mins; J Larmour for Byrne 6-15 mins; J McGrath for van der Flier 18-27 mins; J Tracy for Cronin 55 mins; J McGrath for Healy 55 mins; D Leavy for O’Brien 55 mins; J Ryan for Toner 55 mins; A Porter for Furlong 73 mins; J Gibson-Park for L McGrath 73 mins. J Larmour.
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 White 6-17 and 63 mins; H Williams for Francis 52 mins; A Hepburn for Moon 57 mins; J Hill for Lees 60 mins; S Hill for Whitten 63 mins; J Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie 65 mins; T Waldrom for Kvesic 68 mins; J Short for Turner 74 mins.
Referee: P Gauzere (France)
Yellow card: C Healy (Leinster) 17 mins; S Fardy (Leinster) 31 mins.