Performance for the ages sends Leinster through to last four

Leo Cullen's side was 14 points adrift in the blink of an eye, lost Johnny Sexton to injury, and still swept into the semi-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup at the expense of the holders
Performance for the ages sends Leinster through to last four

Leinster's Hugo Keenan and James Lowe celebrate as Jordan Larmour scores a try

Heineken Champions Cup

Exeter Chiefs 22

Leinster 34

These things are arbitrary but you could argue that Leinster’s defeat of Exeter Chiefs in today’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at Sandy Park ranks right up there with the most memorable and significant of European days in the province’s history.

Big statement, right?

Forget the four titles they have in their locker: this is a club that recorded that cathartic victory over Munster in 2009, the comeback against Northampton in the 2011 final and the brilliant semi win over Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux a year later.

Consider this, though. Leinster were 14 points down after less than ten minutes here. They were playing the reigning English and European champions in their own back yard minus some key men, not least Johnny Sexton whose day ended early.

And they outscored Exeter by 34 points to eight through the last 70 minutes.

It could have been more. Rory O’Loughlin had an injury-time intercept try ruled out for an off-the-ball tackle by Andrew Porter but how bonkers is it that this didn’t even matter by then after the hole they had fashioned for themselves?

Exeter will be distraught. This was the fifth time the sides have met in Europe. Every one of those games has been nip and tuck but Leinster have come through each time and three of them have been played in deepest Devon.

Rob Baxter’s side started disastrously last week, falling 14-0 in arrears against Lyon in their round of 16 tie before turning the tables, and they made sure there would be no repeat here by claiming two converted tries for themselves inside the first eight minutes.

Tom O’Flaherty claimed both, the winger profiting from some poor defending by the visitors to cross the line and it seemed to settle the question as to whether Leinster would be refreshed or rusty after last week’s walkover against Toulon.

The first score came off first-phase, the Chiefs making easy ground before O’Flaherty claimed the ball and burned Hugo Keenan and Sexton with less than 200 seconds played of a game that had been billed as a contest of inches and hard yards.

The second came courtesy of some quite brilliant Exeter play in keeping the ball alive across the pitch before Henry Slade punished an exposed dogleg in the defensive line between Tadhg Furlong and Rory O’Loughlin.

Jordan Larmour’s poor tackle was just the last straw.

Leinster were in dire straits yet responded exceptionally well with their own homage to the benefits of width and quick ball and the penetrating attack was finally halted when Keenan was held up just over the try line by Ollie Devoto.

The danger wasn’t over. Leinster went with a tap and go off a penalty from five-metres out but were held up again, by Johnny Gray, and then pinged for holding on when they went back to the same well immediately after.

This felt huge, a statement of intent from the hosts given the ability of both sides to dominate opponents physically in the opposition 22 and rack up the scores. It left Leinster badly in need of succour and they finally found it.

James Lowe had already troubled the hosts down the left flank by the time he punched through the cover after 18 minutes and, when Sexton persisted with the blindside, it led to Keenan offloading brilliantly for Lowe to tap down. Relief.

With all three conversions successful, it left Exeter 14-7 to the good but the game was clearly swinging Leinster’s way, even after Sexton’s afternoon ended through injury after just 28 minutes and Ross Byrne trotted on in his stead.

The new ten was hardly in situ when Leinster struck again and what a move it was.

A maul down the left touchline started it off and, when that was stopped, they released the backs on a pre-planned move, Byrne firing a superb ball to help it along and Keenan releasing Larmour into the corner.

Byrne nailed the extra two from next to the chalk and he slotted over a penalty shortly after to complete a quite extraordinary turnaround. Leinster were in front. All this and another 47 minutes still to be played, it was more than living up to its billing.

Leinster were still in the ascendency and sniffing around for another try when the half ended, but they had to settle for another Byrne penalty after Johnny Hill caught the out-half late and escaped a card of either colour. Lucky boy.

Six ahead at the break, Leo Cullen’s side were on the back foot again on the restart.

O’Flaherty ripped shreds in their line twice more, both in the opening stages to the second-half, but it was their feared lineout and maul from close-in that did the most damage with Dave Ewers and the entire Exeter pack barrelling over with consummate ease.

Joe Simmonds missed the conversion but nailed a penalty to inch the English champions in front before Byrne responded in kind to leave Leinster one in front with a half-hour to go. This one was going down to the wire. As it always does when these two meet.

Exeter, having profited from Leinster largesse earlier in the day, coughed up a lineout on their own five-metre line approaching the hour and Sexton's replacement produced a superb looping ball out wide to Larmour who spun superbly in the tackle to dot down under pressure.

Byrne couldn’t curl the conversion over from out wide but he did find the target with a penalty after shipping another high tackle to leave nine in it while Leinster’s rebuffing of two concerted attacks deep inside their own 22 was just as big as any score.

Leinster, while never comfortable, didn’t look like being beaten from there on in and that man Byrne – what a game he had - ended the scoring in the last minute of normal time with another three-pointer emanating from a scrum that was utterly dominant by the finish.

All in all, an epic performance by a Leinster side that is now the last non-French contender left in this year’s tournament. A remarkable stat given only two of the four quarter-finals have yet been played.

EXETER CHIEFS: S Hogg; O Woodburn, H Slade, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, T Francis; J Gray, J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds.

Replacements: A Hepburn for Moon and H Williams for Francis (both 51); J Kirsten for Vermeulen (52); S Skinner for Gray and S Townsend for Maunder (both 59); I Whitten for Woodburn (60); J Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (64).

LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour, R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, R Kelleher, T Furlong; S Fardy, D Toner; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.

Replacements: R Byrne for Sexton (28); R Baird for Fardy and E Byrne for Healy (both 51); A Porter for Furlong (55); J Tracy for Kelleher and R Molony for Toner (both 71); D Kearney for Lowe (80).

Referee: M Raynal (Fra).

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