Exeter Chiefs 22 Leinster 34
Leinster will be in the open draw for the semi-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup, where they will be the only non-French side, and deservedly so too.
Even by the standards of the four-time winners, this was one of Leinster’s finest hours in this competition, beating the reigning European and English champions in their own lair and, in the process, ending English interest in the competition.
What’s more, they did it from 14-0 down, ultimately having the stamina and endurance to outlast fellow thoroughbreds on English soil on Grand National Day.
By the end, their supremacy was almost complete, as they initially turned the tide at scrum and lineout time and at the breakdown, as they also had the bigger impact from the bench, notably Andrew Porter and Ryan Baird.
To begin with, Leinster’s defence was ominously unsure, passive and disjointed. But after suffering a double whammy which might have floored lesser teams, and then seeing a first siege on the Exeter line repelled, they stayed calm and composed, working their way into the game.
Johnny Sexton had been the orchestrator in chief, whereupon losing him after a failed HIA might have been another hammer blow. But Ross Byrne, who has only ever once played on a losing side in the Champions Cup, slotted in seamlessly and with immediate effect, while landing six from six for a 17-point haul.
The tide had begun to turn on the breakdown, where the immense Rónan Kelleher, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier all won important steals.
That trio, along with Rhys Ruddock, were outstanding, with Van der Flier's timing onto the ball again superb as he carried above his weight. Robbie Henshaw was brilliant on both sides of the ball, so earning the star of the match award from Sam Warburton, who by rights should have given it to his fellow number seven.
Leinster were sleepy out of the blocks and paid a heavy price, finding themselves 14-0 down in no time. First Devin Toner afforded Exeter safe exit when offside at the fringes before Exeter opted for a scrum when Leinster closed the gap.
Despite having no angle off the scrum, Sam Simmonds hared off infield and found a slightly passive defence which also got its spacings and numbers wrong. Rory O'Loughlin was left with a two-on-one in midfield, and Henry Slade released Tom O'Flaherty, who then spun out of a poor tackle by Hugo Keenan and Sexton to score a soft try with barely two minutes gone.
When the Chiefs again stretched Leinster to the right and came back left, Slade accelerated through Tadhg Furlong and O'Loughlin and fed O'Flaherty, who stepped out of Jordan Larmour's despairing tackle.
Although Sexton began pulling the strings after Toner claimed an overthrow and James Lowe was released for a trademark gallop along the left touchline and offload inside. But after Keenan was held up over the line, Jonny Gray's arm prevented a clear grounding by Scott Fardy before Jonny Hill latched over the ball and couldn't be shifted after a second tap penalty close to the line.
Finally Leinster began motoring when Exeter pushed early in a scrum and Luke McGrath tapped to Conan on the charge. Sexton swept left in identifying space and fed Keenan, who did brilliantly to offload in a double tackle to put Lowe away.
Sexton, who landed a good conversion, was mixing his game up nicely but having already received treatment, was forced to leave the action.
It looked like a hammer blow, but after Henshaw won a penalty in the jackal, Leinster mauled strongly and Henshaw pulled the ball back for Byrne to pass in front of Keenan and he carried diagonally and timed his pass for Larmour to finish smartly by the touchflag.
Byrne even managed the touchline conversion with his second touch, and after Kelleher won his second penalty in the jackal, Byrne landed the penalty to push Leinster in front.
Luke Cowan-Dickie cancelled out a penalty in the jackal by Van der Flier when Conan released Kelleher on the blindside of a clever lineout move but was then pinged after another of many good carries by Van der Flier.
Exeter’s defence was ferocious but Hill’s swinging arm followed through on to Byrne’s face and the Exeter lock was fortunate to escape with merely a penalty. In terms of height, it wasn’t much different from the Bundee Aki hit against England which earned him a red card and four-game ban.
Mathieu Raynal reasoned that the initial hit was on the shoulder, and Byrne dipped, but not even a yellow? Ridiculous.
In any event, Byrne dusted himself off and landed the penalty with the last act of an eventful half which flew by. Leinster had turned a 14-0 deficit into a 20-14 interval lead.
But they again got their spacings in defence as O'Flaherty burst on to a pass from Sam Simmonds through inviting gap between Cian Healy and Fardy. When Ruddock was pinged at the breakdown, Exeter turned down a certain three-pointer for a lineout and, so tightly set-up you could have thrown a rug over them, powered over for Dave Ewers to score.
Joe Simmonds missed the touchline conversion but after O'Flaherty skipped through the tackles of Healy and Larmour, the outhalf briefly nudged Exeter ahead before Byrne did likewise after Ewels tackled off the ball.
That followed a nice trick play, and Leinster also surprised the home side when moving the restart wide inside their own 22 before O’Loughlin broke free from Byrne’s inside pass.
Although Lowe was tackled into touch from one strike play well orchestrated by Byrne as he pulled the ball back for Henshaw, on his introduction Baird stole the ensuing lineout. Leinster went wide right with an advantage play, and Larmour pirouetted in a strong tackle by Joe Simmonds to touch down with an inch or two to spare for an even better finish than his first.
The game then pivoted, not unexpectedly, on a couple of moments in the middle of the pitch midway through the half. First a good Leinster defensive set culminated in a forward pass by Joe Simmonds, whereupon Leinster won a scrum penalty against Alec Hepburn for hinging and went up the line.
Jannes Kirsten then re-enacted Ewers’s high shot on Byrne with a swinging arm and again Raynal deduced that it was only worthy of a yellow card even though Kirsten went even higher, without dipping.
Two wrongs most definitely didn’t make a right but Byrne again dusted himself down to make it a two-score game with the penalty.
Ewers beat Henshaw’s tackle for another line break but for once Exeter then didn’t convert from within five metres. In fact it happened twice after turning down another sure three points when Sam Simmonds picked and jammed into his own player, ironically Kirsten, given he should have been off the pitch,.
Good lineout work by the newly introduced Ross Molony, another strong defensive set epitomised by Van der Flier's thunderous tackling and Porter's sharpness and strength over the ball enabled Leinster to work their way downfield.
There, Porter won Leinster’s third scrum penalty, once more against Hepburn and Byrne unerringly nailed the penalty once more.
To complete the complete turnaround, it seemed Leinster’s defence had earned the coup de grace for a long-range try by O’Loughlin. Instead, Exeter went to the corner and Baird executed another, final lineout steal.
Game, set and match.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: O'Flaherty try, J Simmonds con 7-0; 8: O'Flaherty try, J Simmonds con 14-0; 18: Lowe try, Sexton con 14-7; 29: Larmour try, Byrne con 14-14; 33: Byrne pen 14-17; 40 +1: Byrne pen 14-20; 43: Ewers try 19-20; 48: Simmonds pen 22-20; 51: Byrne pen 22-23; 57: Larmour try 22-28; 66: Byrne pen 22-31; 79: 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), Sam Skinner for Gray, Stu Townsend for Maunder (both 58), Ian Whitten for Woodburn (61), Jack Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (64). 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), Andrew Porter for Furlong (56), James Tracy for Kelleher, Ross Molony for Toner (both 71), Dave Kearney for Lowe (79). Not used: Hugh O'Sullivan.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).