Leinster answer another question

Leinster 22 Exeter Chiefs 17: There are any number of arbitrary ways to measure a team’s progress, but it seemed the obvious thing to think back to Leinster’s semi-final loss to Clermont Auvergne last April as they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on Saturday evening.

Leinster answer another question

This was the province’s biggest European tie since that loss in France, when they trailed 15-0 early on and ultimately came up five points short. The deficit faced here after the first half-hour was 14, but this time they came through with five points to spare.

Time and again we have heard Leinster players recall that loss at Stade de Gerland and rue the mistakes made, so this felt like a pretty important box to be ticked for a side that is now four wins from four in Pool 3.

So, what’s changed? “Tricky question,” said Garry Ringrose. “Clermont last year would have been my first European semi-final, so win or lose I would have come away with a good few learnings and I did. And, as the group evolved, we learned a bit. It is about being composed at times under pressure, especially coming up against sides like Exeter, who are so good. Likewise, against Clermont last year, we were naive at times.”

Ringrose accepted this was far from perfect Leinster. But that made this comeback almost more impressive than their clinical 18-8 win in Sandy Park a week earlier.

They lost captain Isa Nacewa to the sinbin against Clermont eight months ago. This time it was Cian Healy and Scott Fardy awarded yellow cards in that traumatic first-half and then there was the loss of Jonathan Sexton to injury.

Dazed in an attempted tackle on Matt Kvesic in the run up to Sam Skinner’s third minute-try, Sexton failed to reappear after a head injury assessment and his replacement Ross Byrne had to pass his own four minutes later after a clash of heads.

It all added up to a recipe for disaster and an Exeter side playing sharper and smarter rugby than a week earlier made them pay by adding a Gareth Steenson penalty and a second try, from Luke Cowan-Dickie to take a 17-3 lead.

This is the moment that will come to symbolise their entire campaign should Leinster go on and win a fourth European crown next year: The point in time when the side stood up and declared just exactly what it is they are made of.

TV images at the time caught the turnaround in its infancy: Nacewa rounding up the troops circled around him and laying down the law for the remaining 50-plus minutes of rugby. Standing behind him in the shot as he spoke was Ringrose.

“He was just saying: ‘focus on our roles, if we each get our own bit right and have that trust in each other, then we can build a scoreline’. And right from that kick off he’s brilliant. He brings that ‘next moment’ mentality so that if you do concede or do something bad, maybe miss a tackle, kick out on the full, that you focus on the next moment.” Nacewa would walk the walk, too.

The veteran Fiji international would step up and nail all six shots on goal for a personal total of 17 points.

The first two, claimed in the five minutes prior to the break, established the platform for the swing in momentum that reached a crescendo after 66 minutes when scrum-half Luke McGrath cottoned onto a Dan Leavy break and pop pass to touch down.

If Nacewa was the instigator, it was a bench light on experience but loaded with ability and potential that shut it down from there against an Exeter side that will have any number of regrets this week.

Leinster missed 17 tackles, they coughed up 11 penalties and misfired on four of their lineouts. Their midfield defence was pierced too often in the first-half and they were second best at the breakdown too. All of which makes this a win of even greater note. Qualification is all but secured. The question now is whether they can do enough at home to Glasgow and in Montpellier next month to secure a coveted home quarter-final.

On this evidence, you’d think so.

LEINSTER:

R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, S Fardy; S O’Brien, J van der Flier, J Conan.

Replacements:

R Byrne for Sexton (3) and for Larmour (15); J Larmour for Byrne (7); J McGrath for van der Flier (19-28) and Healy (56); J Tracy for Cronin, D Leavy for O’Brien and J Ryan for Toner (all 56); J Gibson-Park for L McGrath and A Porter for Furlong (both 73).

EXETER CHIEFS:

L Turner; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, T Francis; M Lees, S Skinner; D Armand, M Kvesic, S Simmonds.

Replacements:

W Chudley for White (7-18 and 63); H Williams for Francis (53); A Hepburn for Moon (56); J Hill for Lees (61); S Hill for Whitten (64); J Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (66); T Waldrom for Kvesic (69); J Short for Turner (75).

Referee:

P Gauzere (Fra).

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