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Leinster break Exeter and make huge statement of intent

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP: POOL 3 Exeter Chiefs 8 Leinster 18

    It mattered: Leinster’s response to the 54th-minute Exeter penalty that brought the home team level was exemplary. Under the cosh in the third quarter, they regained control and finished much the stronger team. Impressive against that quality of opponent.

    Can’t ignore: Leinster have lacked a real dog of a second row since the days when

    guys like Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines were matching that job description but

    Scott Fardy is making a decent fist of filling that void. Does the grunt work

    really well.

    Good day: Fergus McFadden, like Rob Kearney, has his critics who seem to think he is well past his sell-by-date. But the wing put in a very good shift here. Busy at all times, his deep-field defensive covering was exceptional at times.

    Bad day: All rugby players are prone to injury, back rows particularly, but Rhys Ruddock could really do with a prolonged spell on the paddock. Instead, he’s sweating over another scan when he gets back to Dublin after picking up a hamstring injury.

    Sideline smarts: Leinster were determined not to give Exeter many opportunities to camp in their own ‘22’ and use their trademark pick and go. They succeeded for long periods while adopting the same tactic to huge effect in winning the game.

    Best on show: Tadhg Furlong added to his growing reputation and burgeoning CV with the man of the match award here although the Leinster scrum in general suffered a few setbacks after a mightily impressive opening quarter.

    Man in the middle: Romain Poite made plenty of use of his TMO Eric Gonthier throughout, although he seemed to overrule him when deciding not to award Devin Toner a first-half try as TV images were inconclusive.

    Next up? These two go at it again next Saturday at the Aviva Stadium

It’s five years since Leinster won the last of their three European Cups but this superbly executed defeat of England’s best was the sort of statement that suggests they are well capable of adding a fourth, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Exeter Chiefs are the reigning Aviva Premiership champions and the current league leaders with eight points to spare. They are a side that had won nine games straight in all competitions before this and one unbeaten at Sandy Park all campaign.

Until this.

Already with maximum points through their opening two games, at home to Montpellier and away to Glasgow, Leinster have now taken a strangehold on their pool ahead of the Chiefs’ visit to Dublin for the ‘return leg’ next Saturday.

Leinster's Garry Ringrose tackled by Exeter's Ian Whitten. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Underdogs to most here, Leinster came out fighting. They dominated the opening half-hour of a game that, in contrast to the conditions halted events across a number of sports elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, was clear of snow and mostly dry.

The province’s execution was crisp and clean, their passing flat to the line and intentful despite the aggressive line speed in defence from the Chiefs and, when that got too much, the visitors dinked a pass or a crossfield kick here or there to mix it up.

With a dominant scrum and a clinical lineout to boot, they had all the ingredients required to quieten the capacity home crowd from the off. The only issue was the amount of points they left behind them in that spell.

Two tries, a penalty and a conversion were all let slip.

Twice they crossed the Chiefs’ try line, after four and 13 minutes, but Luke McGrath was denied for what was adjudged to be a foot in touch by Jonathan Sexton and then Devin Toner’s effort was ignored due to insufficient evidence of grounding.

Both were tough calls on Leinster with the evidence of boot to chalk from Sexton not exactly overwhelming and French referee Romain Poite appearing to overrule his TMO for the latter effort after lengthy deliberations.

Leo Cullen’s men kept turning the screw regardless.

Brought back for a scrum after Toner’s close shave, they scrummed down three times with Exeter tighthead and England international Harry Williams sent to the bin at the second time of asking after collapsing the dome once too often.

In the end, Leinster had to go back before they went over, Exeter’s previously creaky setpiece finding its feet and forcing a turnover, but the response was a superb move stemming from a delightful cross-kick from Jonathan Sexton.

Isa Nacewa collected in space and carried two tackles to within a metre or two of the line and it was Sexton wrapping around the short side to collect and run over when Luke McGrath had followed up to recycle from the Kiwi skipper’s burst.

They then proceeded to gift Exeter a couple of easy ins: Luke McGrath kicking straight to touch from his 22 and handing the home side cheap field position, from which Gareth Steenson eventually kicked a penalty.

Leinster re-established the five-point cushion with a Sexton three-pointer on the back of a dangerous no-arms tandem tackle by Luke Cowan-Dickie and Nic White after 27 minutes before facing up to the inevitable but belated home onslaught.

Pegged back in their own ’22’, they conceded inches but little else as Exeter looked to pick and go, as is their wont. A sackful of phases came and went before Matt Kvesic knocked on and so the half ended with the three-times European champions 8-3 to the good.

The reprieve lasted no longer than the interval’s oranges.

A loose box kick and Leinster were in trouble again, James Short collecting on the wing and cutting inside to launch a swift counter that was ended only steps from the try line when Sean Cronin sent Jack Nowell flying in to touch with a high shepherd’s hook.

Again the TMO was used and again it took an age but the news could have been much worse for the Irish side: a yellow for Cronin but no penalty try. Within minutes though the siege had been set again. This too was lifted.

It was heroic stuff.

Having failed with the hammer, Exeter went with the scythe and it worked first time up with wing Olly Woodburn burning past an advancing Leinster rearguard and setting up his fellow flyer James Short to go over in the corner.

Just as annoying as the lapse for Leinster was the fact that Cronin had only just returned to the paddock to bring them back to their full complement but, with Steenson missing the extra two, it remained at eight-apiece.

The response from Leinster was astounding.

Though it was gradual, the game shifted backin their favour. A Nacewa penalty after 63 minutes restored their lead and served as a sign of things to come given it was claimed on the back of copious phases featuring close-in forward drives.

It was the same means that won it for them in the end, 44 phases passing between the lineout claimed by Devin Toner and the moment with six minutes to go when Jack Conan dotted down from a whisker shy of the line.

Nacewa’s conversion left them 18-8 to the good and with Pool 3 in the palm of their hand.

Quite the day. Maybe even a signature day.

Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; J Short, H Slade, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White; A Hepburn, L Cowan-Dickie, H Williams; M Lees, J Hill; D Armand, M Kvesic, T Waldrom.

Replacements: T Francis for Dollman (17) and J Nowell for Dollman (27); B Moon for Hepburn and Tomas Francis for Williams (both 47); S Simmonds for Waldrom (52); J Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (55); S Skinner for Hill (66); W Chudley for White and S Hill for Whitten (72).

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, R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Conan.

Replacements: J van der Flier for Ruddock (43); J Tracy for McFadden (44-54) and for Cronin (54); J McGrath for Healy (54); J Ryan for Fardy, R Byrne for Sexton, M Bent for Furlong and J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (all 72); J Larmour for Nacewa (73).

Referee: R Poite (France).