Eliminating Exeter an epic Leinster performance to rank among their best ever

Eliminating Exeter an epic Leinster performance to rank among their best ever

Leinster’s Jack Conan celebrates at the final whistle as they came from behind to defeat Exeter at Sandy Park in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Picture: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho

There is no way to overplay this one. Hyperbole holds no ground here. Leinster’s European history stretched back across 25 years and 177 games before Saturday’s quarter-final and it’s hard to think of more than three performances that merit mention in the same breath.

The province’s breakthrough semi-final defeat of Munster at Croke Park a dozen years ago will likely never be topped for sheer spectacle, surrounds, emotion, and significance. That they had 19 points to spare that day only adds to the package rather than takes from it.

Two years later and they trailed Northampton Saints 22-6 at the break in the Heineken decider at Cardiff before winning the second half 27-0 and, more importantly, the game and the tournament with it. It remains one of the all-time classic deciders.

For many, that team peaked less than a year later when they absorbed everything Clermont Auvergne had to offer in a Bordeaux semi-final of rare vintage. Les Jaunards were at the height of their powers and long driven demented by their inability to crack Europe.

And then there is this.

Exeter were the English Premiership and Champions Cup holders. They were on home ground. They held a 14-0 lead thanks to two Tom O’Flaherty tries after less than 10 minutes. And Leinster lost Johnny Sexton to a HIA before the half-hour mark.

That’s a lot of cards to deal with in this debate.

Saracens had squeezed the life out of Leinster after a similarly punishing start to last year’s quarter-final in the Aviva and Exeter have been the boa constrictors of club rugby in the northern hemisphere in recent times. It looked bad. Over as soon as it had started.

Yet Leo Cullen’s side outscored the Chiefs 34-8 through the ‘last’ 70 or so minutes and had another seven points wiped from the scoreboard when Rory O’Loughlin’s injury-time intercept fell foul of an off-the-ball Andrew Porter tackle.

No matter. It was nothing more than padding anyway.

The manner in which they absorbed those early blows, and cut out the mistakes that facilitated them, was the ultimate statement by a side whose return of one European title since 2012 has called into question the worth of four successive PRO14 crowns.

Another loss to a physically imposing, systematic English side would have let all sorts of doubts loose. Were they simply unable to cope with this manner of task? Was the PRO14 making them soft? Were they just not as good as people thought?

Forget the Monday morning video review: the next year would have been unbearable.

Leinster’s defence flipped from leaky to dominant. Ross Byrne came in for Sexton and gave the sort of performance that ridicules those who say he isn’t a Test option for Ireland and the rest of the bench utterly outdid their opposite numbers for impact.

They had the better of the scrum and the lineout was superb. The visitors played the referee much the better, kicked long to nix the threat of Stuart Hogg and nullify Exeter’s vaunted pick-and-go game from close in, and they scored some classy tries.

James Lowe started the comeback with the first try 18 minutes in and Jordan Larmour signed for the other two, one on the half-hour and the other closer to the hour. Dave Ewers barrelled over for Exeter’s third shortly after the break but Leinster weren’t for turning.

Where it stands in the blue pantheon is, ultimately, incidental. The reason the other three epics are remembered so fondly is because they fed directly into successful campaigns. This will lose most of its lustre if Leinster fall short of that fifth star now.

Just ask Leo Cullen. “Yeah, unfortunately, like, with quarter-finals it’s hard to get that excited. Yeah, it’s a good performance, and lots of good stuff in it, but it’s like a lot of these things, you perform really well in the quarters and don’t turn up in the semis, then what was the whole point of putting in a positive performance in the quarter-finals in the first place?”

Leinster have been here before.

It’s 15 years this month since Michael Cheika’s side bettered Toulouse in another quarter-final epic and then lost the last-four tie to Munster at Lansdowne Road. Their nearest rivals could share their own cautionary tales here too.

Munster looked like champions-elect when battering an excellent Ospreys side at Thomond Park in 2009 but found Leinster on a different level thereafter and there have been seven seasons since when they have won in the last eight and fallen at the final four.

This is the 12th time Leinster have made the semi-final stage but fresh doubts over the viability of the Rainbow Cup and uncertainty over mandatory hotel quarantine regulations leaves much up in the air even before their due date away to La Rochelle in three weeks’ time.

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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