Flagged as the tie of the weekend, Exeter-Leinster at Sandy Park lived up to the expectation. Not because of any free-flowing rugby — there was none — but because of the elemental nature of the struggle between two heavyweights.
Ball retention has been key to the Chiefs’ rise to prominence, but Leinster targeted their strengths in Devon. Their game-clinching try was a triumph of patience and execution and one-upmanship. Forty-four phases, most of them pick and goes. The boundary between backs and forwards was all but obliterated, the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Fergus McFadden lending shoulders to the wheel, as Leo Cullen’s men rolled towards a third European win in three attempts.
“I was getting a bit cold in the outer channels, so I rolled up my sleeves and helped the forwards a bit,” said Henshaw ahead of the Champions Cup return match between the sides in Dublin tomorrow.
“It was a real battle. We had to put down a statement, lay down a marker. By doing that, we had to play how they play in their 22 and defend how they defend in our 22, so that was obviously in the tighter channels and going hard at it.”
Schmidt loves that sort of stuff. Backs spinning passes or claiming tries is all well and good, but the Ireland coach places a premium on the flyboys getting down and dirty and Henshaw is no stranger to the ‘up-the-jumper’ stuff.
His dad Tony and uncle Davie were both props with Athlone and Connacht in their day and he harbours a distant memory of maybe plying a bit of back-row himself at some stage during his formative school years.
The plan last week was for Leinster to meet Exeter head-on in the physical stakes and earn a semblance of space out wide. The second half of that equation didn’t pan out, but that’s just fine, too, so long as the results keep on coming.
“We did what we had to do to secure victory and that’s what we will have to do this season. We need to be more ruthless. We look at last year where we came up short and we are going to ensure that doesn’t happen again, so we can go a step further.”
If anyone personified Leinster’s approach in round three it was McFadden.
The veteran’s presence in Leinster and Irish line-ups has been criticised widely in recent times, but he displayed the value of nous and a willingness to graft, with his work at the breakdown and his covering in the back field.
“Unfortunately, it went to that type of game, where we needed some of our backs to roll up our sleeves,” explained Henshaw.
“Ferg is like a terrier, he’d put his head where some wouldn’t put their foot. They’re the kind of players you want to play with.”
Nobody did that better or more consistently over a long period of time than Brian O’Driscoll. Many was the coach who admired the centre from afar for the flash, only to be blown away by his work ethic when availing of the chance to work with him.
He scored over 100 tries for Leinster and Ireland combined and, looking back now, it seems almost as if those not claimed with a mazy run were excavated from some subterranean pick and go of the type that the province used so frequently last weekend.
It was a rare talent and one Henshaw feels unsuited to match.
“I know BOD scored a lot of tries from pick and goes, because of his low centre of gravity. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for me. I’m a bit taller, I’m not that low to the ground, but yeah, certainly, when we have to go in there, when we get an opportunity… I think Fergus McFadden got a lovely one last year against Wasps. If an opportunity presents you have to be fast to take it.
“That’s where the good players stand out: When they see a little gap on the side of a ruck. It’s just the speed of the reaction getting in there.”