Leinster dig deep to seal stunning comeback win against champions Exeter
Cullen’s depleted side advance to semi-finals after bouncing back from nightmare start
Leinster’s Hugo Keenan and James Lowe celebrate as Jordan Larmour scores a try in their hard-fought victory against Exeter Chiefs in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, in Sandy Park, England. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
EXETER CHIEFS 22 LEINSTER 34
As they embarked upon their flight home from Devon, the Leinster squad will rarely have felt so satisfied with a job well done. This was one of the severest tests of their collective organisation and strength in depth in some time, and they passed it with elan.
In the aftermath of their Pro14 final win over Munster a fortnight ago, Stuart Lancaster admitted their review was almost as if they had lost. No doubt they’ll find plenty to pick holes with here, not least the initially porous nature of their defence.
However, already missing half a dozen injured internationals and trailing 14-0 inside eight minutes, even after calmly and methodically working their way back in to the game, their task appeared all the greater when they also lost their captain and talisman Johnny Sexton at 14-7 down in the 28th minute.
Whether starting or coming on for Sexton, Ross Byrne had only ever been on the losing side once in his previous 26 Heineken Champions Cup matches. This included replacing Sexton in the ninth minute in December 2012 when they trailed Exeter 7-0, but that was in front of a 40,000-plus crowd at the Aviva Stadium when Isa Nacewa assumed the goal-kicking duties.
Here, with his first touch and having called for a stock Leinster strike move off a lineout on the left, Byrne took Henshaw’s pull back and passed perfectly in front of Hugo Keenan as Rory O’Loughlin’s dummy run helped bunch Exeter’s defence.
There was still plenty of work for Keenan to do in setting up Jordan Larmour for the first of two fine finishes, but with his second touch Byrne nailed the touchline conversion to draw the sides level.
It was as if to say, all was okay, Ross is in charge.
He nailed two more penalties to steer Leinster in front at the break and would ultimately nail six from seven for a 17-point haul.
His only miss was after regaining the lead with a penalty was when failing to convert Larmour’s second finish, an even better one, before two more three-pointers reaffirmed Leinster’s increasing grip on the tie.
Byrne’s only miss was, after regaining the lead with a penalty, failing to convert Larmour’s second finish, an even better one.
James Lowe, always good for yardage well beyond the gain line in that trademark style of his, had scored the first from a wonderful offload out of a double tackle by Keenan.
Leinster played to the edges with telling effect in their comeback, with the foundations set by their increasing superiority at scrum, lineout, gain line and breakdown, as well as better discipline.
The penalty count was 13-10 against Exeter, and at the very least the Chiefs should also have incurred two yellow cards as both Jonny Hill and Jannes Kirsten caught Byrne with flailing arms to the head in following through high hits.
As Mathieu Raynal deduced there was mitigation in that the initial impact by both Hill and Kirsten were to the shoulder/chest area, they were only worthy of penalties.
This was most definitely a case of two wrongs not making a right but at least Byrne dusted himself after treatment in both cases to exact retribution by nailing both penalties.
As expected, such is each team’s potency within five metres, the game pivoted on several moments in the middle of the pitch, where the work of Rónan Kelleher, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan over the ball along with three scrum penalties.
That trio all had immense games. Van der Flier led the defensive effort with 22 missed tackles and won a couple of turnovers, while the timing of his runs on to the ball again enabled him to carry above his weight.
Indeed, one of the key factors in the turnaround was how Leinster increasingly won the contact line. Here, Conan led the charge, with 41 metres from a dozen carries and also chipped in with 17 tackles.
Admittedly, from the outset, it seemed Leinster couldn’t lay a glove on Tom O’Flaherty, who scored the opening two tries. The problems emanated from Robbie Henshaw, who otherwise had another big outing, biting in for the first and Henry Slade spotting a gap between Tadhg Furlong and Rory O’Loughlin for the second, before gradually getting to grips with Exeter’s running game.
Leinster still had to produce a couple of big defensive sets near their own line and there were also three vital line-out steals by the replacement locks Ryan Baird and Ross Molony.
Along with Byrne, Andrew Porter et al, Leinster’s bench also made the bigger impact.
Determined to atone for last September’s defeat to Saracens, the then reigning English and European champions, this time remained collectively calm and composed in their hour of need. Come the final 10 minutes, they managed the endgame superbly, as their European pedigree shone through.
In every respect, Leinster dug deep for this one.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins O’Flaherty try, J Simmonds con 7-0; 8 mins O’Flaherty try, J Simmonds con 14-0;18 mins Lowe try, Sexton con 14-7; 29 mins Larmour try, Byrne con 14-14; 33 mins Byrne pen 14-17; 40 (+1) mins Byrne pen 14-20; 43 mins Ewers try 19-20; 48 mins Simmonds pen 22-20; 51 mins Byrne pen 22-23; 57 mins Larmour try 22-28; 66 mins Byrne pen 22-31; 79 mins Byrne pen 22-34.
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: Alec Hepburn for Moon, Harry Williams for Francis (both 51 mins), Jannes Kirsten for Vermeulen (52 mins),
Sam Skinner for Gray, Stu Townsend for Maunder (both 58 mins),
Ian Whitten for Woodburn (61 mins), Jack Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (64 mins) Not used: Harvey Skinner.
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: Ross Byrne for Sexton (28 mins), Ed Byrne for Healy, Ryan Baird for Fardy (both 51 mins), Andrew Porter for Furlong (56 mins), James Tracy for Kelleher, Ross Molony for Toner (both 71 mins), Dave Kearney for Lowe (79 mins).
Not used: Hugh O’Sullivan.
Ref: Mathieu Raynal (France).