High-flying Leinster dig out gutsy victory

Croke Park in three weeks’ time, where Munster will bring more far more nous, class and belief to face an opponent over which they hold the Indian sign.

IF IT’S thrills and spills you want, watch Munster. If it’s guts andsheer character that float your boat, then Leinster are your men.

No, don’t rub your eyes. Yesterday afternoon in The Stoop is the proof.

The Leinster we used to know and love (or loathe) is dead. The bewitching back line moves, the flaky scrum? Gone. In its place has arisen a team almost devoid of creativity but one that just loves to roll up its sleeves.

Harlequins asked most of the questions but, Mike Brown’s late try aside, Leinster had all the answers and they were based on nothing more convoluted than character and honesty of effort.

Fifteen men — for Michael Cheika made not a single change — hunkering down and out-dogging an outfit rated the best in England right now and playing at home, where only one side had beaten them all season.

And to think, all this is but a mere hors d’oeuvre to the main course at The Stoop was a riot of colour leading up to kick-off, fireworks and can-can girls keeping the masses entertained, but the first half was as dour as the second period in Thomond Park was divine.

Harlequins did their best to keep the ground abuzz with a frenetic opening, one which Leinster appeared to have survived before Felipe Contepomi was penalised for holding on in a ruck.

Thirty yards out and in front of the posts, it was the ideal ice-breaker for Nick Evans but the former All Black put his effort wide and Contepomi did much better himself with an identical effort 15 minutes in.

It was one of the few times Leinster kicked the ball where they intended in the opening half, with Brian O’Driscoll, Contepomi, Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald all guilty of sullying their boots.

Warning lights were flashing elsewhere too. Gonzalo Tiesi and Anthony Turner-Hall both made breaks through the Leinster midfield early on but the first concerted assault on their line was 30 minutes in the making.

The defenders survived, thanks in the main to a Kearney tackle on David Strettle in the corner. Four minutes later it was Ugo Monye, but Leinster answered with raids of their own.

First Rocky Elsom barreled down the touchline after intercepting a sloppy ‘Quins pass, then it was O’Driscoll’s turn to stretch his pins after collecting his own clever chip kick. Monye caught them both, the latter just feet from the line.

Unlike Quins, Leinster did at least claim something for their troubles with Nick Easter’s hand in the ruck punished by a yellow card and a converted penalty from Contepomi which left the gap at six at the break.

Two botched line-outs hampered what was a promising restart for the visitors but not as much as Contepomi’s forward pass to Isa Nacewa, which prompted referee Nigel Owens to rule Kearney’s touchdown out of order.

It was a bitter blow given Owens’ failure to ping the home side on half a dozen other occasions but the sight of Evans, back after four weeks with a knee injury, limping to the sideline seconds later was some consolation.

Leinster were forced to defend from there to the finish. The siege began when Contepomi was shown yellow for what was judged to be a trip on Chris Robshaw who was chasing his chip into the ‘22’.

With Easter returning from the bin at the same time, Leinster must have known what was coming but they managed to postpone the inevitable for 15 minutes as ‘Quins scorned three-pointers in chase of five.

Contepomi had returned to his post by the time the game’s only try arrived, with Evan’s replacement, Chris Malone, manoeuvring enough space out wide for Mike Brown to fly over the whitewash after 66 minutes.

Malone’s missed conversion, from wide on the right, left Leinster holding on to the slimmest of margins and Quins’ hopes shipped another blow when the Australian out-half departed injured four minutes later.

Minus their first and second-choice 10, Quins saw Brown miss a penalty from near halfway before, incredibly, losing their third out-half with seven minutes to go when Tom Williams — a full-back-cum-wing — left the field with a bloodied lip.

When Evans duly reappeared in his stead, Michael Cheika smelt a rat and made a beeline for the touchline to make his point but there was no final twist with the Kiwi spinning a drop goal short and wide before the buzzer.

It was that tight.

HARLEQUINS: M Brown; D Strettle, G Tiesi, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, G Botha, M Ross; J Percival, G Robson; C Robshaw, W Skinner, N Easter.

Replacements: C Malone for Evans 47, J Evans for Percival 70, T Williams for Malone 70.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; F Contepomi, C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright; L Cullen, M O’Kelly; R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Referee: N Owens (WRU).

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