Leinster clean up as they prepare to take €1m Bath
Wasps 20 Leinster 20
TWENTY-FOUR hours is a long time to contemplate the prospect of losing around a million smackers and with it the right to plot a European campaign from one's favoured backyard.
That's how it was for Leinster and their fervent supporters, though, as a second-half implosion in Coventry against Wasps secured enough points to guarantee a Champions Cup quarter-final - but not enough to confirm the banking of a home gig.
Eventually, that did arrive yesterday afternoon when neither Pool 4 rivals, Bath or Toulouse, could harvest enough of an advantage to deny the Irish province an Aviva quarter-final which, with all the added bells and whistles, could nab them a cool €1m.
Toulouse seemed primed to make a decent fist of it when their visit to Montpellier produced two charge-down tries thanks to the generous home full-back Pierre Berard.
But in a see-saw second half, the lead changed fitfully and two-try hero Lucas Dupont gave his side a 27-26 success. Guy Noves' four-time winners, who were in pole position after round four, were sensationally dumped out.
In their stead, Bath, who joined Leinster's rivals Wasps in becoming the first team to lose two opening-round games and still qualify, nervously held on to a 20-15 lead to qualify without threatening to deny Leinster their lucrative home tie. What is even more priceless for Leinster, given the running percentage of 75pc success of home teams in quarter-finals down through the years, a confirmed Dublin date offers Leinster the best chance of winning,
"It's massive to be at home," agreed coach Matt O'Connor as Leinster prepare, presumably, to confirm the Aviva as the venue later this week as they have done for all of their previous European quarter-finals, save the 2010 edition when the venue was being redeveloped.
"We'd back ourselves against anyone with a full group. If we don't get that, we have to make sure we have to be that little bit better.
"In my coaching in Europe, I've been away three times in quarter-finals to the ultimate winners, the first one was Leinster (when he was with Leicester). That's the nature of it."
The irony is that this scenario may face them once more following the semi-final draw; Leinster are fated to travel to either Toulon, who beat them in the quarters last term, or a rematch with Wasps.
The other factor that O'Connor must consider is the inevitable sundering of his panel for two months as 24 of his finest and brightest are lost to Ireland for their Six Nations defence.
Well, it would have been 24 if not for the fact that a pair of them fell in action on Saturday; Dave Kearney suffering significant damage to his AC shoulder joint while Eoin Reddan damaged medial ligaments in his knee.
Jamie Heaslip's recurring shoulder issues, again forcing him prematurely from the fray for a second successive week, may also concern the national coach as he congregates this week in Co Kildare.
The provincial coach must patiently bide his time all the while; on the one hand preparing to welcome back Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy yet also recognising that, after losing 21 players earlier this campaign, the squad available to him in March could be in the lap of the gods.
"The group is going to disperse now and then we'll regroup and fight in the league," says O'Connor. "There's a bit of a break in the season now where we can look at things, regroup and be better moving forward.
"The frustration of the new schedule is an issue because we have a European quarter-final just a week after the Six Nations finishes. There's nobody that gets hit harder than us.
"We have 24 players in the international squad, it takes continuity and combinations out of our group. But they're the cards we're dealt with, we have to play those the best we can."
Aside from the personnel, what kind of Leinster side will turn up to play in the last eight is anyone's guess; they demonstrated both elements of their wildly unpredictable selves in Coventry's Ricoh Arena.
In the first half, such was the ease of their slick running and the awesome intent of their power plays that Wasps' captain James Haskell was moved to comment: "Leinster looked like a million dollars in the first half and when you can't adjust against them, you feel like you're drowning."
"As good as we've ever been," confirmed O'Connor.
And so it was that Leinster's opening assault crashed upon Wasps in waves; the home side's only shot in anger the relentless upending of Dave Kearney that may have destroyed his international spring as he nurses a busted AC shoulder join. As Ashley Johnson pined in the bin - and Jared Payne mused upon why Jerome Garces hid his red this time, unlike last year when the Celtic Kiwi floored Alex Goode - Leinster struck with Fergus McFadden.
The half ended with another Wasps yellow, a reflection of Leinster's utter domination; this time Isaac Boss sniped for the line.
And yet there were worrying portents; albeit few of the Leinster thousands in the 23,493 attendance were expecting a meltdown.
Of all days, Ian Madigan chose this, his last outing before becoming Ireland's number one out-half against Italy in a fortnight, to have an absolute shocker (3/7) from the tee.
"To be honest, in my time here he hasn't had a bad day so it's a bit new to all of us," said his coach of a player of whom Brian O'Driscoll was pointedly critical in his role as a TV analyst.
"He's mentally very, very good and tough as I've seen mentally in terms of a goal-kicker so I've no doubt he will be as good as gold. Goal-kickers aren't responsible, there were other opportunities which we should have taken."
Madigan was also guilty - but also not alone - in spurning certain try-scoring opportunities in the opening half which ended on the dumbest of yellows for Kane Douglas, as he attempted to invoke witless retribution on Johnson.
Still, Leinster were 20-6 to the good at the break and cruising - Andy Goode having shanked a kick himself - but it could have been twice that.
Wasps, driving two lineout mauls to collect 14 points, somehow manufactured a late drop-goal to win the game in an extraordinary second-half comeback. What began as a confident, purposeful march into the last eight had been dramatically minimised to a tentative tiptoe.
"We were dominant for large parts and we didn't go for the throat and do enough to put them to sleep," bemoaned the coach.
"We let him down out there because all the messages were good at half-time," agreed Luke Fitzgerald.
"Everyone felt good. We knew we'd played well but we knew that Wasps were still a danger because they have so much pace there that they can turn the game around very quickly. I thought we kicked poorly out of hand second half and didn't help ourselves."
Ultimately, they may have ended up kicking themselves but, unlike so many envious rivals, at least their European dreams are still alive.
Wasps - R Miller (A Masi 61); C Wade, E Daly, B Jacobs (A Lozowski 77), T Varndell; A Goode, J Simpson; M Mullan (S McIntyre 71), E Shervington (C Festuccia 58), L Cittadini (J Cooper-Woolley 50), B Davies, J Gaskell (K Myall 58), A Johnson, J Haskell (capt), N Hughes (J Cooper-Woolley 36-40).
Leinster - R Kearney; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, I Madigan, D Kearney (D Fanning 6); J Gopperth, E Reddan (I Boss 29); M Bent, S Cronin (R Strauss 64), M Moore (T Furlong 64), D Toner, K Douglas, D Ryan, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt)
ref - J Garces (FFR)
Toulon loom large
LEINSTER are likely to have to beat holders Toulon in the south of France if they are to win the first European Champions Cup, having been handed a nightmare semi-final draw last night.
Matt O'Connor's men will play Bath in the last eight on the weekend of April 4, with the game likely to take place at the Aviva Stadium and victory would see them face the champions or Wasps away from home.
Toulon ended Leinster's campaign in comprehensive fashion at the Stade Felix Mayol last season, but they would not play a semi-final at that venue. Last season, they beat Munster at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, while Nice is another option.
(weekend April 3/4/5)
Clermont v Northampton
Leinster v Bath
Racing Metro v Saracens
Toulon v Wasps
(weekend April 17/18/19)
Clermont/Northampton v Racing Metro/Saracens; Toulon/Wasps v Leinster/Bath.