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Van der Flier, Kelleher, and Henshaw among the Leinster standouts

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s side were superb in Sandy Park yesterday.

Jack Conan celebrates Leinster's win.
Jack Conan celebrates Leinster's win.
Image: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

ROBBIE HENSHAW WAS named man of the match but it could have gone to several other Leinster players.

Only nine minutes into yesterday’s Champions Cup quarter-final in Sandy Park, the smart money was on an Exeter player walking away with the award for the best individual performance. 14-0 up, the defending champions had a massive early advantage.

But Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s Leinster steadied themselves rapidly after the poor start and they were soon wrestling momentum back onto their side, as Exeter boss Rob Baxter noted during his in-game interview on BT Sport.

The Premiership side did get on top again early in the second half but Leinster were in control for far longer periods of the quarter-final to deservedly advance into this evening’s semi-final draw, which will take place after the Clermont v Toulouse quarter-final.

Cullen and co. would love a home draw in Dublin for the weekend of 30 April/1/2 May but they did it on the road against Exeter yesterday, with a host of top-class performances helping them to success.

Henshaw continued his superb form in midfield, combining excellent defensive decision-making with sharp handling and his usual impact in the carry and tackle. A Lions Test jersey awaits if he keeps this up into the summer.

Leinster’s back row was very important, right from the moment Jack Conan’s huge carry from a free-kick gave them the impetus that led all the way to Hugo Keenan offloading for James Lowe’s try, the first Leinster score.

Openside flanker Josh van der Flier had another excellent game, delivering impact with his team-leading 22 tackles, earning two breaking turnovers, and also continuing his impactful ball-carrying form. The 27-year-old is timing his venomous runs onto the ball to perfection these days.

james-lowe-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-hugo-keenan James Lowe and Hugo Keenan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As ever, Rhys Ruddock was a grizzly presence from the blindside as Leinster managed to limit the usually outstanding Sam Simmonds’ influence from Exeter’s number eight shirt.

In the front row, Rónan Kelleher was the standout for Leinster as he provided consistent dynamism in what were brutal collisions. His two breakdown turnovers were crucial, the second allowing Ross Byrne to kick three points off the tee, while Kelleher was part of a strong set-piece showing.

Replacement out-half Byrne excelled after coming on for captain Johnny Sexton, whose 28th-minute departure with a head injury had seemed like an obvious big blow for Leinster. Instead, Byrne was all composure.

His first touch was a superb pass that allowed Keenan to put Jordan Larmour away for his first try, then Byrne nailed his touchline conversion from wide on the right and soon added the aforementioned three points.

Even while shipping high tackles from Jonny Hill and Jannes Kirsten, Byrne looked unflappable in a performance that underlined how vital it is for Leinster to have a back-up out-half of his quality.

Byrne was aided by the leadership of scrum-half Luke McGrath, who is having a brilliant season in the number nine shirt and must be testing Andy Farrell’s thoughts on the Ireland pecking order. 

Larmour took his two tries very well, the second a particularly excellent finish in the right corner, while James Lowe bounced back to something much closer to his best after his recent disappointment with Ireland in the Six Nations.

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Meanwhile, Keenan continues to improve every time he plays. He would have been disappointed with his missed tackle for Tom O’Flaherty’s first try but he was superb thereafter, his offload to Lowe a highlight in yet another calm, incisive showing. At 24, he keeps getting better. 

robbie-henshaw-is-presented-with-the-heineken-champions-cup-star-of-the-match-award Robbie Henshaw was man of the match. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leinster’s bench played a huge role in their victory too, with 21-year-old lock Ryan Baird chief among the impactful replacements as he piled on the lineout pressure – his work there leading to Larmour’s second try.

Andrew Porter is as good a tighthead replacement as any team could dream of, while Ed Byrne and James Tracy helped Leinster to keep their dominance at scrum time.

The scary thing is that Leinster were missing players of the quality of Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Leavy, Will Connors, and Scott Penny, highlighting the sheer depth of their squad.

It remains to be seen what awaits them in the semi-finals, but the quality of their display in Sandy Park means Leinster will fancy their chances of winning a fifth European title.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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