Sport Champions Cup

Saturday 24 March 2018

Leinster survive late scare


Leinster's Isa Nacewa goes over to score his side's crucial try in yesterday evening's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Leicester at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leinster's Isa Nacewa goes over to score his side's crucial try in yesterday evening's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Leicester at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This competition has a habit of throwing up the odd game that is like a Test match, only better. This was one of them. Electric pace; very high skill levels despite the massive intensity; and a finish that had the potential for extra time as the Tigers came chasing seven points with the clock counting down.

In that last-gasp chase there was a spread of panic among most of the 50,000 crowd, who were having visions of a great day speeding south. And Leinster coach Joe Schmidt?

"Do I have to be honest? Yeah, I was a bit worried," he said. "But I certainly had faith that we would stay disciplined. But gee, there were some tired guys out there. For every one of us [tired], there was one of them."

In that case there was a whole heap of them, for the game was end to end with precious little room to catch your breath. Afterwards Tigers coach Richard Cockerill was full of praise for the way his team had fought back from a 17-3 deficit with only five minutes left and the game seemingly over the horizon.

He was right, and it only added to the value of the occasion that they managed to get sight of it before Leinster finally pulled the shutters, courtesy of their excellent defence.

Schmidt will be rerunning that try by replacement Rob Hawkins, who managed to catch the Leinster defence ball-watching on 77 minutes when he came in from a wide angle, but that has been their only blemish despite having had to make a truckload of tackles here and in Thomond Park last weekend. To be able to withstand waves of attacks is reassuring for Schmidt. And to have a set-piece that can compete is nice too.

The loss of Louis Deacon on 29 minutes deprived the Tigers of their lineout leader, and they finished with stats of 0-4 against a home side who got away with at least one example of contesting the man and not the ball. So it goes.

As it happened, Deacon's replacement Ed Slater knocked on a crucial ball at the end when they were on the charge. That was probably one of the big things that went wrong for them.

Throw in Ben Youngs putting a clearing kick into Isa Nacewa's bread basket instead of off the field -- that led to the fullback's thrilling try in the second half (there was a suggestion of a forward pass in his one-two with Shane Horgan) -- and Toby Flood missing a handy penalty from much the same spot as against Ireland a few weeks ago, and the Tigers weren't getting the breaks they needed to live with one of the best club sides in Europe.

Leinster seemed to give more latitude to the Tigers' halfbacks than Ireland had done, but it didn't cost them anything. They always had the winning of this game, and should have been further ahead than 9-3 at half time. Through Cian Healy, they butchered an overlap after just four minutes with a cast of thousands waiting for the pass outside. The damage was limited by the excellent Jonny Sexton -- who hit four from five shots on goal -- tapping over a penalty.

Then, later in the half, Luke Fitzgerald lost his depth when trying to finish a lovely move between Sexton and man of the match Richardt Strauss. Here are two players in polar positions right now: Strauss can do no wrong, and is incredibly dynamic for a man of modest size; Fitzgerald can't do much right for a man with so much ability. Schmidt should have called him ashore in the third quarter in favour of Fergus McFadden, who eventually came on for Horgan.

Fitzgerald's poor form stands out because just about everybody else is playing so well. The scrum was messy at times but not critically so, and Mike Ross carried very well, and tackled a bit too. The back row too was effective, and Kevin McLaughlin made his most articulate statement yet that he has found the form and fitness which saw him capped 14 months ago.

The only area Leinster struggled in yesterday was in trying to find enough players coming onto the ball from depth. But they got over it. As they did with the Tigers' most fertile period, early in the second half.

Having come out of the changing room at a good lick, Leicester had a try referral inside three minutes only for it to come back with thumbs down after Sean O'Brien had managed to squeeze Alesana Tuilagi into touch in goal. Had he stayed in bounds, and Flood converted, it would have been Leinster chasing a one-point deficit instead of defending a lead of six points.

Five minutes later that had stretched out to 14-3 with Nacewa's try. "He was exceptional in the ground that he covered," Schmidt said of his fullback, who is playing brilliant rugby. When Flood missed his penalty shot soon after it was trouble for Leicester, and when Sexton slotted a penalty on 75 minutes for the 17-3 lead you felt that was that.

And it was. It was just that it wasn't straightforward. And that only added to a great night's entertainment. The prospect of some more in the semi-final will sell out the Aviva again at the end of the month. Bring it on.

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