Dublin: 16°C Tuesday 21 September 2021

Leinster storm into European semi-final after overcoming 14-point deficit in Exeter

Leo Cullen’s men beat the defending champions to surge into the final four of the Champions Cup.

Exeter 22

Leinster 34

NINE MINUTES IN, Leinster looked like they were in real trouble. Trailing 14 points to the defending European Champions on their home patch, Leo Cullen’s men left themselves with huge ground to make up.

But the drive for a fifth Heineken Champions Cup title is still alive after Leinster produced a remarkable turnaround in Sandy Park, battling their way ahead by half time and showing control and poise to see out this quarter-final victory.

hugo-keenan-and-james-lowe-celebrate-as-jordan-larmour-scores-a-try Jordan Larmour scores for Leinster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They lost captain Johnny Sexton to another head injury in the first half too, yet Ross Byrne sauntered off the bench and delivered instant impact in a highly-composed performance at out-half. 

A team as good as Exeter was always like to pressure Leinster to breaking point at times. Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be disappointed with some of the scores they gave up, but there will be major pride and confidence taken from the manner in which the Irish province battled their way back to victory.

Leinster were lethal out wide as James Lowe crossed on the left and Jordan Larmour produced two finishes out on the right – the second of them particularly excellent. In the midfield, Robbie Henshaw continued his sensational form.

As expected, it was a brutally physical encounter in Exeter and Leinster showed up well up front too, with 23-year-old hooker Rónan Kelleher and flankers Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock often leading the way. Jack Conan was punchy at number eight, while Ryan Baird made an impact as part of an excellent Leinster bench in the second half. 

Leinster will feel their task could have been made slightly more straightforward had Exeter lock Jonny Hill been carded for a high tackle on Byrne just before half time, but referee Mathieu Raynal decided it was a penalty only. In the second half, Exeter back row Jannes Kirsten escaped sanction in similar circumstances.

Even with 15 men for the duration and that early 14-point lead, Rob Baxter’s Exeter didn’t have enough and they will relinquish their European crown as Leinster deservedly advance into the semi-final draw hungry to add a fifth star to their jersey. 

tom-oflaherty-runs-in-a-try Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

Leinster have rarely had a worse start, although they rarely play teams as good as Exeter.

After early penalty and free-kick concessions, Leinster’s defence caved on the home side’s first real attack as two screen passes on a scrum play allowed Tom O’Flaherty to get outside Rory O’Loughlin. It looked like Hugo Keenan would ground him after the initial break, but O’Flaherty shrugged off his tackle attempt and broke clear of Sexton too for a soft score. 

Exeter had their second try in the eighth minute as a long period of phase play – featuring a brief Ruddock turnover – ended with outside centre Henry Slade ghosting past Tadhg Furlong for the linebreak and feeding O’Flaherty on his left to finish beyond of the despairing clutches of Larmour.

With captain Joe Simmonds converting both tries, Exeter had a huge early 14-point lead but Leinster reacted strongly.

A sweeping move down the left saw Lowe offload inside only for Keenan to be held up over the tryline. Exeter conceded penalties twice – with Scott Fardy held up in between – in the ensuing pressure but avoided a yellow card and then lock Hill produced a massive turnover near their tryline.

Leinster were undeterred and a massive carry by Conan from a free-kick just inside their half got them going forward before Lowe again made yards down the left. A couple of phases later, Sexton directed the attack back down the left-hand shortside and Keenan produced a brilliant offload out of a double tackle to send Lowe over.

jordan-larmour-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-james-lowe-and-luke-mcgrath Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sexton converted and Leinster soon got a major grip on the breakdown battle, with impressive hooker Kelleher twice earning turnovers, while van der Flier also won two, and Conan chipped in with another.

Leinster suffered what looked like a big blow in the 28th minute when Sexton was forced off with a head injury but his replacement, Byrne, made an instant impact as Cullen’s side scored directly from a first-phase lineout attack just after he came on.

Henshaw’s sharp pullback pass gave Byrne time on the ball and the out-half’s inviting pass sent Keenan on an arcing line, holding last defender Stuart Hogg just enough to give Larmour space to finish in the right corner for a TMO-confirmed score.

Byrne nailed the touchline conversion and then hammered over a 46-metre penalty following Kelleher’s second turnover. Leinster were ahead at 17-14.

They finished the half further in front after Exeter briefly thought they would lose Hill to the sin bin or even a red card. Referee Mathieu Raynal spent his time on a TMO review of Hill’s high tackle on Byrne but eventually decided that it was a penalty only, with Byrne slotting the three points for a 20-14 lead at the break.

ross-byrne-takes-a-kick Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Exeter’s start to the second half was familiar as O’Flaherty produced another linebreak that saw Leinster penalised when they scrambled in defence. Exeter kicked into the left corner and produced an extremely dynamic maul try finished by flanker Dave Ewers.

Though Simmonds missed the extras, he soon kicked a penalty when O’Loughlin was caught offside. Exeter were back in front but only briefly, a tackle off the ball by Ewers on Kelleher allowing Byrne to slot another three points. Leinster led 23-22 with half an hour left.

It looked like the visitors had wasted their next chance in the Exeter 22 when Lowe was tackled into touch on the left, but lineout pressure from Baird – just on for Fardy – forced a turnover.

The close-range pressure from Leinster’s pack yielded penalty advantage and Byrne flung a long pass wide to Larmour, who finished superbly past Hogg and through the tackle of Simmonds, twisting to ground the ball for another TMO-confirmed score. Byrne couldn’t convert but Leinster had a six-point lead heading into the last quarter. 

Exeter needed to fire a shot in response but Leinster’s defence forced a forward pass from them before the Irish province’s scrum earned a penalty. On the subsequent attack, there was another high tackle on Byrne – this time by replacement back row Kirsten – but Raynal again decided it was a penalty only after TMO review.

hugo-keenan-is-tackled-by-ben-moon Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Byrne dusted himself down and kicked Leinster 31-22 ahead with 14 minutes left to go. 

Get exclusive
rugby analysis

Access members-only podcasts, analysis and insider reports from The42’s Murray Kinsella

Become a Member

The breathing room of a nine-point gap was useful and Byrne even opened it a little further before full time with another penalty after Leinster’s scrum finished in dominant fashion.

O’Loughlin had a possible final score chalked off with the clock in the red but this was a very, very good day’s work for Leinster.

Exeter scorers:

Tries: Tom O’Flaherty [2], Dave Ewers

Conversions: Joe Simmonds [2 from 3]

Penalties: Joe Simmonds [1 from 1]

Leinster scorers:

Tries: James Lowe, Jordan Larmour [2]

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1], Ross Byrne [1 from 2]

Penalties: Ross Byrne [5 from 5]

EXETER: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn (Ian Whitten ’60), Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds (captain), Jack Maunder (Stu Townsend ’58); Ben Moon (Alec Hepburn ’50), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle ’64), Tomas Francis (Harry Williams ’50); Jonny Gray (Sam Skinner ’57), Jonny Hill; Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen (Jannes Kirsten ’51), Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: Harvey Skinner.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe (Dave Kearney ’79); Johnny Sexton (captain) (Ross Byrne ’28), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy (Ed Byrne ’51), Rónan Kelleher (James Tracy ’70), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter ’56); Scott Fardy (Ryan Baird ’51), Devin Toner (Ross Molony ’71); Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Hugh O’Sullivan.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].  

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel