Saturday 17 March 2018

Leinster must get clinical -- McFadden

Leinster's Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton combine to tackle Exeter Chiefs' Luke Arscott at the RDS
Leinster's Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton combine to tackle Exeter Chiefs' Luke Arscott at the RDS
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ten minutes after full-time, the Exeter players re-emerged from the tunnel for their warm-down and were greeted by their fans who sang their native American war-chant and did their 'Tomahawk Chop' as their vanquished heroes did a mini-lap of honour following a fine Heineken Cup debut.

Leinster fans had long departed for the hostelries of Ballsbridge. Their players never came back out. For the holders, this was one to forget, a not-so-great escape.

The glass-half-full merchants would point to it being the mark of champions that they can win even when they are not playing well.

Centre Fergus McFadden was not inclined to agree.

"They (Exeter) lost that today, if we are going to be honest," the Kildare man admitted. He was right. If Leinster play like this again, they are going to be in real trouble.

The denouement was all too close for comfort. Referee Pascal Gauzere pinged Kevin McLaughlin, somewhat harshly, for not rolling away just inside the Leinster half. It handed Argentina international Ignacio Mieres a chance to win it, but his effort drifted right as the blue brigade breathed easily for the first time in more than an hour.

Joe Schmidt gave an insight into what was going through his mind as the replacement out-half lined up his kick.

"You've just got to be realistic, you've got to plan," the New Zealander said. "OK, if he gets this, I think I need to get everyone together and focus a bit more on the positives; if he doesn't get it, then they (the players) will take the positives themselves.

"We do have to be better than that, with the utmost respect to Exeter. In pieces, I thought we weren't too bad today, but they didn't allow those pieces to be too long or too effective."

Leinster started well and spent much of the opening 10 minutes in Exeter territory. The English side weren't about to shepherd their hosts over the line, though, and their 'inside-out' defence and determination to close off the hosts' ground meant that Jonny Sexton was denied space and time.

The blues led 3-0 after dominating these opening stages, Sexton getting one of the two kicks he attempted, but they ended up going in level at 3-3 and it could have been worse had Dungannon native Gareth Steenson not missed two of his three efforts on goal.

Sexton restored the lead after half-time after a fortunate penalty, but Leinster could not break free as the St Mary's man missed an effort to put six between them from the touchline before they finally worked some space with a trademark wrap-around, but the fly-half dummied and took contact, rather than exploiting the three-on-two available.

Still, Exeter refused to lie down and Steenson pegged them back with his last act before being withdrawn.

But that old Heineken Cup experience came into play in the closing stages as replacement prop Ben Moon gave away a ridiculous penalty in front of his own posts for Sexton to give Leinster the lead again. The same player then thwarted his side's comeback push by going off his feet at a ruck minutes later.

Mieres did get a chance with that last-gasp penalty, but, into the wind, it wasn't to be.

So, what was to blame for the holders' inadequacies? For Schmidt, it was another example of the lack of cohesion his squad have experienced this season due to a combination of the IRFU's player drip-feed and the raft of injuries affecting a host of key men. That and Exeter's combative display.

Leinster visit Llanelli to take on the Scarlets this Saturday and improvement is needed.

"I'd say that, in our hand, there's a couple of rocks missing that we'd like to have," was the way the New Zealander put it.

"So, there's a bit of gravel we're going to have to throw at them, to a degree. And that mix in the hand might not be as powerful or as well-oiled as we'd like it, but we'll certainly go there and give it our best shot.


"It's down to changes, it's down to unavailability as well. You've got a fair bit of inexperience out there, especially at Heineken level.

"There's some young guys who are still finding their feet -- Ian Madigan in a foreign position and Andy Conway on the wing -- that's his first Heineken Cup start. And, at the same time, we had a few guys returning from injury who are inevitably going to be just off the pace. Cian (Healy), Leo (Cullen), even Eoin (Reddan) -- he didn't do a lot at training this week.

"That's another thing which just compromises that continuity you are looking for. I will take nothing away from Exeter. I think they're going to be very tough to beat in all six matches."

For the English newcomers and their Irish captain Tom Hayes, there were mixed emotions as pride mixed with regret for an opportunity lost.

"It is my first time playing back in Ireland since I left seven or eight years ago, but it wasn't all about that," Hayes said. "It was a huge game for us as a club.

"Playing the Heineken Cup champions in their own backyard was a huge introduction to the competition.

"We showed that we are not afraid of being there and we just wanted to go for it. We do feel a bit disappointed in some stuff, but you have to credit Leinster for turning us over three or four times in their own '22.'

"We went hard at it, filled the pitch in front of them all day in defence. We made them work hard and they made us work hard. We were never out of it by any stretch of the imagination and we always felt there was something there for us to go for. We always felt that the pressure was all on them."

Leinster knew all about it, but they are traditionally slow starters and can expect to improve ahead of their trip to Llanelli, where they shipped 45 points on the opening day of the season.

This morning's review session will focus on a day when they lost out in the possession and territory statistics, while their line-out and scrum creaked. On the flipside, their defence was robust -- with McLaughlin making an astonishing 20 tackles -- and their counter rucking was excellent.

A host of blood injuries mean that training will be disrupted again at UCD this week, but McFadden reckons the champions will grow stronger as the tournament goes on.

"I am not worried about our form," he said. "We will look at our performance and what we need to address during the week. We put some good phases together here, but we just weren't clinical enough in their red zone. If we solve this next week, we could be on our way to a much better performance."

Leinster -- I Madigan; A Conway, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (H van der Merwe 55), R Strauss (S Cronin 75), M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 55); K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Exeter -- L Arscott; I Whitten, P Dollman, J Shoemark (S Naqelevuki 55), M Jess; G Steenson (I Mieres 66), H Thomas (W Chudley 55); B Sturgess (C Budgen 77), S Alcott (C Whitehad 66) C Rimmer; T Hayes (capt), J Hanks; T Johnson (D Mumm 59), J Scaybrook, R Baxter.

Ref -- P Gauzerre (France)

Irish Independent

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