Sunday 19 November 2017

Muted Blues get off the hook

Leinster 9
Exeter 6

BRENDAN FANNING at the RDS

In a group where you had three teams fighting to escape from a telephone box, it turns out there's a fourth one squashed in there as well. And while Exeter Chiefs are still long odds to get out, they will have a big say in whoever eventually breaks free for fresh air.

Indeed, they have already made an opening statement on that subject. In fairness to Joe Schmidt, he was warning his players all week that a club in only their second season in the Premiership, and playing their first game in the Heineken Cup, would be no easy beats. His opening words to them when they got into the changing room at half-time might have been along the lines of: 'I told you so.'

This was a nuggety game of rugby, where the absence of tries was compensated by the increasing tension as Leinster scrambled to get enough control for long enough to get the Chiefs safely off the property. Although they fell over the line in the end, control was something they never had much of, aside from a typically bright opening spell.

The problem for Leinster was that their opponents are very comfortable with the way they play, and while it might not always get them over the line first it rarely sees them left in the starting blocks.

"Our inaccuracy made it hard," captain Leo Cullen said afterwards. "We just didn't have enough rhythm and then when we had we coughed up a couple of lineouts in good attacking positions as well. We were sloppy in our execution, which was partly down to us and partly to them.

"I'd watched about four or five of their games and they're very good, a very cohesive unit and they don't give you anything easily. The fact that we were a bit sloppy on top of that just made for a pretty disappointing day for us."

Well, not as bad as if they had had to share the points, but you see where he's coming from. Cullen was reminded of the night here three years ago when London Irish won on the same scoreline as yesterday, so yes, it could have been worse. And for his opposite number, Tom Hayes, it could have been better.

"Yeah but we don't have too many complaints," he said. "There's a lot of positives to take out of it: our first game in the Heineken Cup and we were probably expected to get a bit of a hiding. We came here with a plan and I think we were smart enough and composed enough to implement it."

That plan was to put as much heat as possible on Leinster by dragging them through phase after phase. That required technique and structure and Exeter clearly had both, getting by with an average of two cleaners per breakdown and being able to go a long way without losing their shape.

Their composure deserted them a bit in the opposition 22 -- if they had been a bit better there it would have been a different story. That said, referee Pascal Gauzerre would sooner have streaked across the field than send a man to the bin. There were a few strong cases in the second half, with the crowd generating a fair bit of noise, the most obvious of which saw replacement Chris Whitehead hitching a free ride on a blue shirt from a distinctly offside position.

By then Leinster were well rattled. They had turned over 3-3 at half time, and would have been in arrears had Gareth Steenson not missed two very kickable shots. Sexton gave them the lead mid way through the third quarter only for Steenson to cancel it out a few minutes later. By then it was writ large that a kick would seal the issue, for the home side were never close to scoring a try -- a very worrying position for Schmidt -- but at least were capable of turning over the Chiefs when it became imperative.

As it turned out, the best bit of their game was Sexton's booming touch-finders off penalties. He was able to give them several great field positions like this, and when he knocked over another penalty -- he missed two -- with six minutes left they looked like they might score again.

Instead they had to sweat over a last-gasp Chiefs effort from replacement Ignacio Mieres, from just inside Leinster's half. He had the distance but, to the relief of the full house -- minus the vocal band of Chiefs' fans -- not the accuracy. Leinster were glad to get off the pitch as soon as their tired legs would carry them.

Scorers -- Leinster: J Sexton 3 pens Exeter: G Steenson 2 pens

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, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 55); K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S Jennings

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, S Alcott (C Whitehad 66) C Rimmer; T Hayes (capt), J Hanks; T Johnson (D Mumm 59), R Baxter, J Scaybrook

Referee: P Gauzerre (France)

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