Leinster grind out crucial Champions Cup victory in Exeter epic

Leo Cullen’s men delivered a hammer blow to the English champions’ European ambitions.

Exeter Chiefs 8

Leinster 18

Sean Farrell reports from Sandy Park

A 44-PHASE bout of pressure delivered a knock-out blow for Leinster in an epic heavyweight slugfest that sees them open up a commanding six-point lead in their Champions Cup pool.

Enough about pools and points through, this was a match about dogged determination and Jack Conan’s 71st minute try to seal the victory was just one of numerous sets of intense pressure over 20 phases long.

A comprehensive 10-point margin at the home of the English champions, their first loss at Sandy Park for 12 long months is an enormous statement of where Leinster are at right now. A statement performance built on immense performances from Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien.

Leinster players celebrate Jack Conan's try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The chaotic snowy conditions that hit other matches around England were never feared for the sunny south west where the temperature at kick-off was a, relatively, balmy seven degrees.

And Leinster didn’t need any extra time to warm up for the contest, they roared out of the traps, dominating the first quarter, and demanding the hosts to dig their heels in deep.

Few teams dig deeper than Exeter though, and their hunger to tackle and disrupt left Leinster pondering an evening of frustration. TMO Eric Gonthier chalked off what initially looked to be tries from Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner, the out-half missed a kickable penalty and the eastern province were with spluttering distance of the line a third time only for the intense pressure to yield another spill.

Fergus McFadden celebrates Jack Conan's try Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

After 20 minutes of huffing and puffing though, with tighthead Harry Williams sitting in the sin-bin paying the price for the indiscipline of his team, the Chiefs were finally stretched too thin to hold out. A pin-point mid-range kick from Sexton switched the play clinically and Isa Nacewa took possession on the run. The skipper was hauled down, but Henshaw was on hand to keep the ball alive and slip the pass out for Sexton to dive over.

Exeter could have almost been grateful for the chance to get back to the half-way line, and they took advantage of the opportunity, mining a penalty out of Cian Healy at the breakdown. Gareth Steenson coolly slotted that to make the score 3-5 when the Chiefs welcomed their Lions wing Jack Nowell onto the field restoring the hosts to a full complement of 15.

Leinster weren’t done, a dangerous Nic White tackle gave Sexton an easy penalty to restore a five-point lead, but they had to roll the sleeves up and get through a serious defensive shift to keep it that way all the way to half-time.

The Chiefs mounted an almighty onslaught of pick-and-goes in range of the Leinster line, but the visitors didn’t blink. They sustained a bloody-minded resistance until a knock-on came to stop the Tomahawk Chops mid-swing.

James Short and Phil Dollman with Fergus McFadden Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Blades sharpened, the Chiefs rallied early in the second half and showed off a totally different element of their attack, a fluid counter that flowed wide on the right with Olly Woodburn putting Nowell haring towards the corner until he was halted unceremoniously by a high Sean Cronin tackle that put the hooker in the bin.

The visitors did a decent job of managing the stint with 14 men, yet just as they welcomed a 15th man back to the field, Exeter’s fluid side-to-side passing found a route through; Henry Slade’s slick hands bringing Woodburn into the gap and he sent James Short scorching into the corner and celebrating as he went.

Momentum was not easy won in this game however, and Nacewa nudged the visitors back ahead — Jonathan Sexton would limp off before the end — before they drew a collective breath prepared for one almighty push that yielded the decisive score thanks to Conan’s powerful 70th minute score.

Only six days until they have to do it all over again in Dublin.


Exeter Chiefs

Tries: J Short

Conversions: G Steenson (0/1)

Penalties: G Steenson (1/1)


Tries: J Sexton, J Conan

Conversions: J Sexton (0/1), I Nacewa (1/1)

Penalties: J Sexton (1/2), I Nacewa (1/1)

Leinster: Rob Kearney,  Fergus McFadden , Garry Ringrose,  Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (Jordan Larmour ’72),  Johnny Sexton (Ross Byrne ’71),  Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park):  Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ‘), Sean Cronin (James Tracy ’43)

Tadhg Furlong, Michael Bent ’71), Devin Toner,  Scott Fardy (James Ryan ’68);  Rhys Ruddock (Josh van der Flier ’43), Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan.

Exeter Chiefs: Phil Dollman (Tomas Francis  ’17, Jack Nowell ’27),  James Short, Henry Slade,  Ian Whitten,  Olly Woodburn, Gareth Steenson,  Nic White (Will Chudley ’71):  Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon ’47) Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle ’65), Harry Williams (Tomas Francis ’47),  Mitch Lees, Jonny Hill, Don Armand,  Matt Kvesic,  Tom Waldrom (Sam Simmonds ’52)

Attendance: 12,606

Referee: Romaine Poite

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As it happened: Exeter Chiefs v Leinster, Champions Cup

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