Exeter Chiefs 8 Leinster 18
This was such an effective away-day strangulation of the English champions that Leinster’s performance had even silenced the majority of the initially boisterous 12,606 capacity. In a classic case of the biter being bit, Leinster squeezed the life out of the Chiefs and did unto Exeter what they had done to all visitors since last losing at home on the corresponding weekend to Bordeaux Begles exactly 12 months ago.
Having repelled two attacks of 20-plus phases by the home side which customarily lead to only one outcome hereabouts, Leinster responded to being pegged level by then relentlessly and remorselessly dragging Exeter through first 32 phases and then 44 phases for their match-winning penalty and converted try.
Pretty? Not especially. Effective? Mightily.
Their scrum wobbled after a bright start, but with Scott Fardy adding some Australian grunt behind a frontrow in which the work-rate of Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong was immense, as was that of Jack Conan and the high energy Robbie Henshaw, Leinster controlled large tracts of the game. Luke McGrath, on the money with steepling box kicks, and Johnny Sexton provided the control, while Nic White had a very off-colour night, and Exeter’s outside backs increasingly fumbled their lines under the high ball.
They were in the zone from the start, and were only denied a fine fifth minute try by millimetres. Garry Ringrose switched the point of attack from right to a narrower left, Henshaw, Sexton and Isa Nacewa giving Rob Kearney a run, before Sexton supported on the inside, and though tackled short, he popped the ball up for McGrath to touch down. Alas, recourse to the TMO showed that Olly Woodburn had done enough to drag one of Sexton’s white boots on the touchline.
Another three points went abegging when Sexton surprisingly missed a 40 metre penalty after Tom Waldrom was penalised for not rolling away. So it continued. After Fardy partially blocked White’s box kick, Conan was held up short of the line and Devin Toner over it, and the TMO Eric Gonthier informed Romain Poite he could award the try, but when Gonthier couldn’t confirm he had seen the ball being grounded, Poite decided otherwise as critically, he had asked if it was a try, yes or no.
Leinster then opted for scrums, and three penalties against Harry Williams for going to the ground earned him a yellow card. Leinster went for another scrum, so obliging Exeter to bring on Welsh tight-head Tom Francis, but in place of the injured full-back Phil Dollman. The Exeter gamble worked, Francis inspiring the scrum to shunt Leinster off their own ball as the rain arrived.
There being no way through the fast-up Exeter defence, Sexton went around it with a pinpoint cross kick to Nacewa, who carried hard infield to within two metres of the line, and McGrath put Sexton over on the blindside from the recycle, thanks in the main to Ringrose’s superb clear-out. He didn’t manage the touchline conversion.
But McGrath soon box-kicked out on the full, and when Healy was penalised for not releasing after the tackle, Steenson made it 5-3. When Sexton was penalised for being in front of the kicker, Exeter had their first entry into the Leinster 22, but their normally potent maul was held up impressively.
Instead, White and Luke Cowan-Dickie, who has previous for this, were jointly penalised for no-arms tackles on Healy, and this time Leinster Sexton made it 8-3, only for Steenson to ping a scrum penalty into the corner again.
When Waldrom peeled around the line-out, Sexton held him up until the cavalry arrived. Cue the Chiefs’ trademark pick-and-latch drives, but they were repelled through 22 phases until Furlong forced a knock-on from Matt Kvesic.
However, upon the resumption, McFadden twice overran box kicks by the Leinster halves, and after James Short counter-attacked off the second, Exeter worked an overlap for Jack Nowell, and Sean Cronin was yellow carded for a high tackle.
It might have been a penalty try. In any event, Leinster held up the maul, before opting to sacrifice McFadden when obliged to bring on James Tracy at scrum time. It was a big Leinster scrum too, augmented by more remarkable defiance of another multi-phase close-in attack, culminating in Fardy tackling Cowan-Dickie and the immovable Sean O’Brien winning the turnover penalty.
However, a crooked throw by Tracy in the Exeter 22 felt pivotal, all the more so when Exeter’s scrum earned another penalty, whereupon Steenson ran at Ringrose and popped the pass perfectly to make the initial incision for Woodburn to put James Short over.
Steenson’s missed conversion left the sides level before it was Exeter’s turn to repel 32 phases by Leinster after good work in the air by McFadden and bad work by the hapless White, but at least McGrath’s pass at a kneeling Sam Simmonds earned the penalty. Nacewa, rather than Sexton whose right thigh was now heavily bandaged, put Leinster back in front.
Woodburn’s awfully sliced clearance direct into touch gave Leinster the attacking line-out just outside the 22. On they went, through 44 phases of their own one-off runners and pick-and-jam, as if to prove a point, finally eschewing an overlap when Jack Conan barrelled through Henry Slade and Simmonds.
By the end, only blue flags were waving, and only The Boys in Blue were being serenaded. Bring on the Aviva rematch.
Scoring sequence: 21 mins Sexton try, 0-5; 25 mins Steenson pen 3-5; 32 mins Sexton pen 3-8; (half-time 3-8); 54 mins Short try 8-8; 62 mins Nacewa pen 8-11; 71 mins Conan try, Nacewa con 8-18.
Exeter Chiefs: Phil Dollman; James Short, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten, Olly Woodburn; Gareth Steenson (c), Nic White; Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Mitch Lees, Jonny Hill, Don Armand, Matt Kvesic, Tom Waldrom. Replacements: Tom Francis for Dollman (17-27mins) and for Williams (47 mins), Nowell for Dollman (27 mins), Ben Moon for Hepburn (47 mins), Sam Simmonds for Waldrom (52 mns), Jack Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (55 mins), Sam Skinner for Hill (66 mins), Will Chudley for White, Sam Hill for for Whitten (both 72 mins).
Sinbinned – Williams (17-27 mins).
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (c); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan. Replacements: Josh van der Flier for Ruddock (43 mins), James Tracy for McFadden (43 mins) and for Cronin (53 mins), Jack McGrath for Healy (53 mins), Michael Bent for Furlong, James Ryan for Fardy, Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath, Ross Byrne for Sexton (all 72 mins), Jordan Larmour for Nacewa (73 mins).
Sinbinned – Cronin (43-53 mins)
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)