Leicester 14 Leinster 23
This was proper. A proper European Champions Cup knock-out tie, in a partisan atmosphere on a glorious, warm day in the East Midlands for an Anglo-Irish summit meeting between the leaders of the Premiership and the URC. And how Leinster passed their biggest test of the season.
The crowd were howling at Mathieu Raynal from early on, which was testimony to their concerns over Leinster's early grip on proceedings. To their credit, they stayed loyally with their team even after trailing 20-0 at the break, and roared on the Tigers' as they dominated the third quarter and threatened an unlikely comeback.
Gradually, Leinster becalmed the home team and, to a degree, the home crowd. To their credit too, they afforded Johnny Sexton total silence for his four successful kicks at goal albeit they resorted to roundly booing him when he left the field past the hour mark, which was boorish.
The pantomime crowd had a second pantomime villain in Raynal, whom they booed from the field after the final whistle as he left the pitch, which was simply funny.
For in the cold light of day not even the most blinkered Tiger could dispute that the better team had won.
As expected, Leinster's frontline team had been perfectly primed after a two week break. They had to withstand some concerted power plays early on but manned the backfield, where James Lowe, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O'Brien were excellent, in preparation for Leicester's customary aerial assault.
Not only were Leinster prepared to take to the air themselves – they actually had 26 kicks form hand to Leicester’s 23 – but they also had more tempo, ambition and heads up awareness than the comparatively programmed hosts and chose their moments to attack from deep tellingly.
Statistics, damned lies and statistics. Ultimately, Leicester had 54% of the possession and 69% of the territory, and the latter did not come as a surprise. The home side had the more sustained spells in the Leinster 22, especially in the third quarter when using a swathe of penalties to go up the line and to the corner.
It was great to see James Ryan putting in such a big 76 minute shift, the highlight being two lineout steals when Leicester went to the corner, as well as making a dozen tackles.
Leinster had to put their shoulders to the wheel in some big defensive sets, notably with the game still alive at 3-0 in the first quarter before they struck, when Johnny Sexton and Ryan set the tone in combining to force a spillage from Ollie Chisholm.
Ross Moloney, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, who also made 16 carries in another mighty match, also chipped in with 12 tackles apiece.
Jimmy O'Brien, with vital help from Josh van der Flier and Dan Sheehan, also held up Nemani Nadolo over the line. The second half was not especially comfortable.
Yet tellingly Leinster were much more capable of mixing it up, whether pragmatically manning the backfield and countering Leicester’s kicking game, or choosing their moments to go wide and release Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien for huge breaks up field.
The first game from Sexton’s long skip pass and the second when Lowe, oozing security under the high ball as much as the typically faultless Keenan, marked, tapped and linked with his Kiwi kindred spirit Jamison Gibson-Park in another of their seemingly telepathic plays. Gibson-Park, with that play, two huge breaks, a couple of turnovers and the speed of his service, was the beating heart of this performance.
“It is important for us to impose our game,” said Cullen, “and how are we going to impose our game? That’s probably one of the areas that we could do it. So if the ball is there let’s try to play. We did it a couple of times in the second half, maybe it didn’t work as well.
“I thought the guys looked sharp in the first half but we’d a little bit of a drop off in the second half. But we got through. There were some good parts to the performance but there were plenty of inaccuracies at different stages as well. So we know we need to be better.”
Each side scored a brace of tries, albeit Leicester’s second in the dying embers of the game amounted to a mere consolation and having roared into a 20-0 lead by half-time, it always felt Leinster were in command of this quarter-final.
You sensed that even Cullen's counterpart, Steve Borthwick, accepted this.
“Leinster were clinical. Really, really clinical. There’s a lot we can take forward from the game. Only five of the team had played in a Champions Cup quarter-final before so there’s plenty to learn from it
“Ultimately, Leinster are a very good team. They aren’t going to let you play the way you want to play. Our message at half-time was just go have a go at them. In the first half we didn’t do that. That’s a regret that but will learn from it.”
For Cullen, it had been a pleasing return to the club where he played for two seasons from 2005. This week he had seemed almost giddy at the prospect of returning to his old haunt, and while his post-match mood was entirely affected by the result, he had enjoyed little nuggets in the day as well.
"Ah, getting off the bus was outstanding, the Leinster fans clapping us off the bus. It was strange being in the dressing-rooms there. Even when we arrived down the pitch was covered in water. I don't know if you guys spotted that. But obviously they'd done a complete hose job on the pitch which had us squelching around but when George Ford slipped over in the wet patch, that made me laugh," he recalled, laughing.
One came away thinking that, as ever in this competition, you have to earn your stripes. Leicester, two-time winners, have had past glories in Europe, but they are on the way back after a couple of years in the doldrums, and this was their first quarter-final in six seasons.
Leinster were doing so for the sixth season in a row, and had the additional motivation which comes from suffering defeats in the final, quarter-finals and semi-finals over the last three seasons. Perhaps they simply just wanted it that bit more as well.
LEICESTER TIGERS: Freddie Steward; Chris Ashton, Matias Moroni, Guy Porter, Harry Potter; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Ellis Genge (capt), Julian Montoya, Dan Cole, Ollie Chessum, Calum Green, Hanro Liebenberg, Tommy Reffell, Jasper Wiese.
Replacements: Nemani Nadolo for Moroni (45 mins), George Martin for Reffell (50 mins), Joe Heyes for Cole, Richard Wigglesworth for Youngs (both 59 mins), Harry Wells for Green (63 mins), Freddie Burns for Ford (67 mins), Nic Dolly for Montoya (73 mins), James Whitcombe for Genge (76 mins).
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan for Kelleher (48 mins), Cian Healy for Porter, Michael Ala'alatoa for Furlong, Ross Byrne for Sexton (all 63 mins), Rhys Ruddock for Conan, Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (both 71 mins), Tommy O'Brien for J O'Brien (72 mins), Joe McCarthy for Ryan, Porter for Healy (both 76 mins).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)