Leinster’s mixed bag ultimately leaves them with some home comfort

Missed opportunities and loss of tempo in second half almost costs them against Wasps

Andy Goode of Wasps misses a drop goal in the last minute to win the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Wasps 20 Leinster 20

Rarely will an away draw to secure qualification for the last eight have felt so hollow, even if yesterday's events would turn this into a home quarter-final. Leinster secured their place in the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup at the outset of the weekend's pool finale, and a dozen sides including two Irish ones would gladly exchange places with then.

Yet they really should have made certain of a home quarter-final rather than leave their destiny out of their own control. Well though Leinster played in the first-half to lead 20-6, their failure to build a bigger lead and then to not close out the deal, somewhat undermined their credentials as potential champions. Ultimately they flattered to deceive a little.

Akin to their muddled emotions at the final whistle and in the minutes and hours afterwards, Leinster's performance was a decidedly mixed bag as well. They left two spells of concerted pressure in the red zone and one more after half-time without reward, and saw Ian Madigan untypically miss four penalties – at least two of which were well within his normally assured radar. Jimmy Gopperth was also awry with a drop goal.

Yet had Andy Goode not fluffed a straight-ish penalty with the last kick of the first half from about 25 metres nor missed a 35 metre drop goal with the last kick of the match, Leinster would not only have finished runners-up in the pool but, as events transpired, ended up being ranked seventh and facing a reprise of last season's quarter-final away to Toulon.


Card-happy referee

There was also the moment when Tom Varndell had a try chalked off due to Nathan Hughes crossing in front of the winger and blocking the defensively excellent Luke Fitzgerald. As Jerome Garces had also penalised Dominic Ryan for a similar offence at the start of the second half, in this respect at least the card-happy and penalty-happy French official was at least consistent.

That could not be said of his interpretation of Ashley Johnson carelessly if recklessly taking out an airborne Dave Kearney from the kick-off, not when compared to Garces' fateful red card against Jared Payne in last season's quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens.

All in all then, Leinster were not really sure what to feel, for relief at how the endgame panned out must have been tinged with a regret over their own lack of ruthlessness, as it should never have come to that fraught finale. Ditto their performance.

Maintaining the trend of their previous three performances, there was more variety to their running game, with more work-rate off the ball, more decoy runners, better strike moves and more confidence in their offloading game as well. They had to huff and puff, albeit impressively in the second-half, before eventually subduing Wasps from a 20-8 half-time deficit at the RDS in October, but here they pulled clear early on to lead 20-6 at half-time.

They were helped by that yellow card to Johnson inside 25 seconds. As Leinster settled into their familiar passing, running and recycling rhythm, so Wasps settled into their defensive rhythm – making their tackles and not over committing to rucks – but persistent failure to roll away saw Lorenzo Cittadini also yellow carded.

For all this though, in truth Leinster butchered several try-scoring chances in addition to the brace they took, as well as the 15 points they left behind with the boot, before crumbling a little in the last quarter. They kicked poorly out of hand and weren’t helped in the last quarter by Isaac Boss’ miscued box kick and Gopperth kicking the ball dead.

Wasps were bound to come into the game at some juncture, and not helped by the loss of Dave Kearney (shoulder), Eoin Reddan (losing tempo with his departure due to a knee injury) and even the normally indestructible Jamie Heaslip, Leinster became a little ragged.

They could have benefitted from more aggressive line speed in defence as Wasps came into the game and Goode had acres of space with which to play with and, helped by Joe Simpson’s lengthy pass, put some further width on the ball.

Narrow in defence

Wasps’ big backrowers also began to rumble as Leinster at times looked quite narrow in defence, and they were indebted to Fitzgerald’s ability to shepherd two or three opponents across the line as well as his strength in the tackle. Nor could Leinster’s bravery when scrambling and then desperately defending their line, be questioned at all.

The scrum went pretty well as Michael Bent and Marty Moore stepped up to the mark again, while Kane Douglas, finally finding a run of form after being on the rugby treadmill since last February, again put himself about with gusto.

Alas he over-stepped the mark when binned on half-time for shouldering Johnson as the latter ran a decoy line off the ball, although Leinster managed that scoreless ten minutes well. By contrast, they engineered seven points in each of the first-half ten minute spells against 14 men, albeit they subsequently coughed up three soft points each time.

Jordi Murphy also continued his return to form with some good carrying, as did Fergus McFadden with some strong carrying and a typically high work-rate. All in all though, you couldn’t help but feel that a side with genuine Cup-winning credentials would have closed out this deal, and that they couldn’t have had too many complaints if punished with an away quarter-final.

Not that it matters a whit now.

WASPS: R Miller; C Wade, E Daly, B Jacobs, T Varndell; A Goode, J Simpson; M Mullan, E Shervington, L Cittadini, B Davies, J Gaskell, A Johnson, J Haskell (capt), N Hughes. Replacements : J Cooper-Woolley for Hughes (36-38 mins) and for Cittadini (50 mins), C Festuccia for Shervington (58 mins), K Myall for Gaskell (both 58 mins), A Masi for Miller (61 mins), S McIntyre for Mullan (73 mins), A Lozowski for Jacobs (77 mins). Not used: G Thompson, E Jackson. Sinbinned : Johnson (1-11 mins), Cittadini (27-37 mins).
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, I Madigan, D Kearney; J Gopperth, E Reddan; M Bent, S Cronin, M Moore, D Toner, K Douglas, D Ryan, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements : D Fanning for D Kearney (4 mins), I Boss for Reddan (27 mins), R Strauss for Cronin, T Furlong for Moore (both 63 mins), J Conan for Heaslip (65 mins), M McCarthy for Douglas (72 mins). Not used: J Hagan, G D'Arcy. Sinbinned: Douglas (40-50 mins).
Referee: J Garces (France).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times