Exeter Chiefs are Aviva Premiership champions and they lead the current ladder by eight points. They hadn’t lost on home soil in 12 months in league or Europe. Nine games in a row had been put to bed by them prior to this.
So, this felt like something beyond a mere pool win for Leinster. Something beyond even the fact that they had denied their hosts a losing bonus point and added to the maximum points claimed in their October openers at home to Montpellier and away to Glasgow.
This was a shot across the bows of the rest of Europe to the effect that the three-time champions are again capable of adding to that haul come next May - even if Leo Cullen was insisting on reviewing it with a hangdog expression.
That expression may have something to do with teh face they were left stranded by the cancellation of their chartered flight back home to Dublin from Bristol.
The Irish side was due to depart last night but with their intended flight unable to land in Bristol due to the wintry conditions, the province was due to spend another night in the same Exeter hotel which, luckily, had enough availability to cater for their party.
They are instead due to fly out of Exeter Airport today. The players had been due to spend today recovering from a brutally physical match-up in the English West Country.
Montpellier’s win in Glasgow on Friday may have merited caution, too.
“For us it is a short turnaround and we have to manage the group well over the course of the week so we give a good account of ourselves again,” said Cullen. “Exeter will be a different proposition. They’ll be a different beast.”
Winning the ‘return leg’ in Ballsbridge will be paramount now if the worth of this quantum leap isn’t to be lost. Leinster are well capable of that but it promises to be another titanic tussle with thousands of Chiefs fans due to make the trip.
Underdogs for a change, Leinster came out fighting here. They dominated the opening half-hour of a game that, in contrast to the conditions that halted events across a number of sports elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, was played in the absence of snow.
Even the rain was intermittent.
The province’s execution was crisp and clean, their passing flat to the line and full of intent 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 number 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 calls were slightly harsh on them.
Leo Cullen’s men kept turning the screw regardless.
Brought back for a scrum after Toner’s exertions, 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 touched down off a superb backline move started by a Sexton crossfield kick to Isa Nacewa and finished by the Ireland out-half himself after the Kiwi’s burst up the line was recycled by Luke McGrath.
Gareth Steenson and Sexton then traded penalties before Exeter began to pile on the pressure. Leinster stood firm, repelling wave after wave inside their own ‘22’ and making it through unscathed to the break.
That felt big, major, but the reprieve lasted no longer than the interval’s oranges, Sean Cronin yellow carded for a high tackle on Jack Nowell just as the English Lion was about to go over. And yet again they survived the onslaught.
This 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. A Nacewa penalty after 63 minutes restored their lead while serving 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, 44 phases passing by 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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
R Poite (France).