Trusty servants save day but this team has lost its spark, writes Neil Francis
Coldplay have a great line in their song The Scientist: "Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard."
What Leinster have cultivated over the last four seasons has been the culmination of a huge amount of hard work. The thing is it never stops, it only gets harder.
I looked at the bookies' odds yesterday, and they said Leinster were 18/1 on to win the game. In a two-horse race nobody is 18/1 on, particularly a side that is as badly misfiring as this Leinster one is. The 30/1 on the draw was really tempting. The historians though will say the bookies were right and Leinster, as they sat in the dressing room looking at the result in the Clermont-Scarlets game, probably started humming those strains from Coldplay.
Do Exeter deserve credit? Of course they do, they kept the ball, they were efficient, they had a simple game plan and they read Leinster very well. They forced Leinster to make 168 tackles. Leinster are always very good without the ball and Exeter never really threatened their try-line. They looked like dung-beetles pushing a giant ball of poo up a hill and as soon as the pressure became too much the ball rolled down the hill again.
Leinster when they needed to, squeezed Exeter on the gain line, isolated their runners and got men into the breakdown as soon as there was a sniff of a turnover. There were four key turnovers as Exeter went multi-phase and each time they ended with absolute certainty. Leinster wanted the ball back; that said, the men in blue lazily coughed it up 14 times -- the 'great one' being the chief culprit with four turnovers, his yearly allocation in just one game.
I think Leinster do this on purpose. They conspire to have a stinker so that their wont to improve becomes all consuming and they can beat themselves up in the preparation phase for the next game. It's almost pointless pointing out how much lineout ball and scrum-ball they lost or how far behind they were in possession and field position.
Mentally they were a long way from where they needed to be and I got the sense from the first 20 minutes that they wanted to end this game as a contest very early on. They had built up the pace and the phases to do this and got themselves nice field position with a setpiece. Four times within the first 30 minutes they very carelessly coughed up the pill when it would have been easier to carve Exeter up.
The longer the game went on the more convinced Exeter were that this competition and its exulted champions were a myth. Yesterday Leinster were mortal flesh and blood and it was only experience that got them falling over the line ahead of Exeter. The west countrymen, if they had any notion of how to play in this type of competition, could have won this match.
Once again Leinster's Mount Rushmore of leadership and experience became the pathfinders for the win. Cullen, Jennings, Sexton and O'Driscoll in the vital moments gave direction. It is one of their great qualities. They can bide time but they were caught out as they tried to run the clock down and Kevin McLaughlin didn't have to give away the penalty which Ignacio Mieres missed to the right. There was a touch of the Brock James about Mieres' demeanour and the quality of his strike and he missed the posts by 10 metres. If it had been the other way around Sexton would have got the kick, that was the difference.
All the graduates of the Joe Schmidt school of understatement probably did underestimate Exeter a little bit and Leinster's confidence coming in to this game would have been accompanied by a bodyguard of caveats. Yes if they'd upped their performance by 10 or 15 per cent they could have burnt off their opponents but it must be borne in mind that Leinster never really troubled Exeter's try-line and some of the quality of movements which see Leinster make progress were comfortably repulsed.
On 60 minutes Leinster attacked through their trademark Sexton wraparound -- the pivot taking a return from O'Driscoll and scooting through a half gap but, rather disquietingly, Exeter were reassuringly composed and ready for his foray and closed him down with not a huge amount of fuss. They were also helped by the fact that Leinster's passing was inexplicably loose; the amount of ball that went to ground only gave Exeter encouragement.
The Aviva Premiership side's back row was pretty rugged and competitive and slowed an awful lot of ball down as Leinster's back row had to make a total of 54 tackles throughout the game, which explained why they weren't cutting through midfield and assisting their outside backs. They really do miss Sean O'Brien, who is a bowling ball looking for an alley, and his work at the breakdown is badly needed. Another four-pointer in Llanelli I think will only prolong the agony -- this Leinster team has lost its spark.