Reigning champions resigned to sup on disappointment, says Neil Francis
Pull up the anchor, cast off the bow lines and set sail out of harbour. That was the task that Leinster were charged with but the ship barely got outside the harbour.
You sensed all the way through this that the ghosts of habits past would come back to haunt Leinster just as it did in the Llanelli game. There was a labyrinth of uncertainty as yesterday's games were being reeled off, but you just get a feeling that there was an element of pre-determination about this.
Leinster never played at any stage like defending champions in this pool and when Munster eventually pick off Racing today, the men in blue will only have themselves to blame. The situation was unrecoverable and the chase was rendered redundant when, yet again, Leinster, with a bonus point in the bag in the 54th minute, couldn't score one single try in the 26 minutes which were remaining against a side that were clueless in possession but frustratingly managed to garner a huge amount of time in possession, which just ran down the clock.
The added source of grief was that the West Country side hadn't been killed off and so they still fancied their chances of winning the game.
When Clermont put them to the sword in both of their pool games, they ran the sword right through and the Chiefs knew they were dead from a long time out. The best that they could do was be brave and show pride, but yesterday they were looking for a scalp all the way up to the 74th minute.
One of the great annoyances about this particular weekend is the performance of the French in general. Toulon didn't bother their arse to turn up in Montpellier and were whipped by a far superior physical force up front and there was no response from the superstars. They ran out the gate and their chances of winning this competition diminish on the back of that performance.
Today, Racing take a ragbag bunch of second-team players to Thomond where they will get routed and will show no signs of any resistance to what Munster do to them.
Romain Poite had a dreadful evening at Sandy Park. Exeter, indeed, are a difficult side to play against – they are very Connacht-like in the way they kill ball on the ground, do not roll away and come in well off the back foot. In a belated yellow-carding to Ben White in the 73rd minute, it was an acceptance that his refereeing had been substandard all afternoon.
Leinster had just got a head of steam up and White, like all his fellow players, decided to go in and kill the ball. Why Poite decided, with only seven minutes to go, to bin him you could only put down to the vagaries of his Gallic persona – they had been doing it all afternoon and he had let them away with it – "go and talk wiz your playourze". He said it four times to Exeter. They knew what they were doing and they played the French man like a Stradivarius.
As defending champions there should have been a burning desire to go after the target that should have given them some staying power, but Leinster were too loose in the chase and again neglected the fundamentals.
As they say, the winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigator and now their hopes, aspirations, title and reputation lie in a common grave with failure and 'what ifs'. It will be a miracle if Munster mess up this afternoon.
As they sup on disappointment, Leinster will look once again on their lineout and their lineout strategy. In the Clermont game, those three loose lineouts in the second half cost them dearly and yesterday both Strauss and Cronin cost Leinster four vital platforms. It is self-defeating, and they had all the time in the world to concentrate and fix it in the weeks coming up to the last vital two games.
When Leinster got their runners going around the corner at pace they looked very good and the clean-out and the quality of the placed ball for their first try told you that just like Clermont, Leinster could blitz this Premiership side. But once again as the phases were being played they got isolated and got pinged for holding on three or four times. If they had studied Poite over the last couple of seasons, holding on in the tackle is his number one pet hate – all they had to do was release the ball. Exeter weren't going to do anything with it.
And so we came to the crunch moment in the match, a situation that never should have been; White gets pinged and is sent to the bin and, with seven minutes left, Leinster have to kick the penalty as opposed to going for another try because they were not certain at that stage of winning the match.
Were their tactics right? They had to once again not play their traditional territory game and kick to the corners, the idea being that the extraordinary pace of the game would leave Exeter out on their feet and in need of having to introduce an inadequate bench. Never, at any stage, would Leinster have countenanced the fact that their scrum, so dominant in the first 30 minutes, would fall into a malaise and that their lineout would collapse too in the second half when they really needed it.
It is a matter of regret that Leinster were unable, for a variety of reasons, to field their strongest side in all of the games. However, here they were on the precipice of the competition, caught between a rock and a hard place and their full-strength starting XV – a thing of beauty a bit like soldiers in peace time or one of those four-faced red brick chimneys in the summertime – of little value to them at this moment in time. The moment has passed them. Sandy Park a cemetery with stands where their European aspirations may be buried.
I may be wrong, and I hope I am, but I am certain that Munster will know what to do today. For the men in blue the Amlin awaits.