Leinster ride their luck to bring it home

Wasps 20 Leinster 20: European Champions Cup Pool 2: Matt O’Connor put a mostly positive spin on a game that got away from his Leinster team in Coventry on Saturday, but there can be no escaping the difference between the worth of a home and an away berth in the last eight.

Leinster ride their luck to bring it home

Leinster’s players have become practised at minimising the importance of such matters but O’Connor knows better than any player and coach in the European game just how important it is to inhabit that home dressing room come April.

In three out of the last four years, he has had to pack his passport and challenge one of the continent’s big boys on their own turf. In 2012, his Leicester team lost to Leinster in Dublin. A year later, Toulon doling out the damage to the Tigers.

Last April, in his first year with Leinster, it was déjà vu on the Cote d’Azur as the French heavyweights again delivered the knockout punch. Each time, their conquerors went on to lift the trophy, which paints Saturday’s near-collapse in an even harsher light.

The overall statistics are even more revealing. Eighteen of the 19 Heineken Cups contained quarter-final rounds and 16 of the eventual champions played their last eight ties at home. Only Munster, in 2008, and Leinster a year later bucked that trend.

“It’s massive to be at home,” said O’Connor at one point on Saturday evening, before their fate was confirmed. “We’d back ourselves against anyone with a full group (of players). If we don’t get that, we have to make sure we have to be that little bit better... But there has been a bit of growth from us mentally in terms of how we approach games away from home.”

Leinster’s first 50 minutes at the Ricoh Stadium backed that up. Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss scored two first-half tries, both of them claimed while Wasps were reduced to 14 men after indiscretions by Ashley Johnson and Lotenzo Cittadini.

Against that were the dozen points left a-begging by Ian Madigan’s wayward place-kicking and at least two tries that went unclaimed due to errors inside the home 22. All of which let Wasps back in having trailed 20-6 at the break.

Indeed, the manner in which Leinster surrendered the initiative in the final half-hour cast a pall over the visitors — Andy Goode missed an injury-time drop goal winner — even if the draw ensured top spot in Pool 2 after an injury-hit campaign to date.

“That’s part of the frustration,” said O’Connor, in referencing the fourth of Madigan’s spurned kicks 54 minutes in. “If we had scored next at 20-6, it’s a different game. There’s an opportunity to win the game late on and an opportunity to lose the game just as easily.

“You’ve got to weigh it up and be pretty balanced about it,” he added. “There were some good things and some stuff that we can improve upon. From that end, we need to be better next time out.”

Luke Fitzgerald is certain they will be. Injuries to Dave Kearney (shoulder) and Eoin Reddan (medial knee ligaments) are likely to affect Ireland more than Leinster, given both were due in international camp this next two months anyway.

Then there are the remaining injured players still to return.

“It’s very exciting,” said the Blackrock man. “If we look at the bigger picture, we have some great guys coming back. We have a European player of the year coming back (in Sean O’Brien). We have Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock, who I just think is a class act.

“He has gone slightly unnoticed although he came on the radar slightly more in November. He is just a mutant of a man. He is an unbelievable athlete. With those guys coming back you would have to feel we will only get better.

“They are all smart footballers and Jamie (Heaslip) has been playing pretty banged up (with a shoulder injury). Having him hopefully back fully fit after Six Nations, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”

That said, the usual problems apply. Leinster will have just two weeks, and one Pro12 game against Glasgow Warriors, to recalibrate for that last-eight tie after the Six Nations when they will look to atone for their failure to launch in the south of France months before.

“The disappointment that day was the performance, the result was irrelevant,” said O’Connor of the 29-14 loss at Stade Felix Mayol. “We were not the best versions of ourselves and there were lessons in that.”

WASPS: Miller, Wade, Daly, Jacobs, Varndell, Goode, Simpson, Mullan, Shervington, Cittadini, B. Davies, Gaskell, Johnson, Haskell, Hughes.

Replacements: J Cooper-Woolley for Cittadini (50); C Festuccia for Shervington and K Myall for Gaskell (both 58); S McIntyre for Mullan (73); A Lozowski for Jacobs (78).

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.

Replacements: I Boss for Reddan (27); R Strauss for Cronin and T Furlong for Moore (both 63); J Conan for Heaslip (65); M McCarthy for Douglas (72).

Referee: J Garces (France).

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