Nacewa surge gives Leinster home comfort
On they go. Leinster's progress to the last four of the Heineken Cup, following a compelling tussle at Lansdowne Road, was not without its hiccups but was fully merited and a significant result for Irish rugby in World Cup year.
Defeat would have deflated the season and sapped a clutch of Ireland's World Cup hopefuls of vital impetus and confidence to take into the summer. However, although the redoubtable Tigers scraped and clawed for 80 minutes and over -- coming within touching distance of extra-time -- Leinster were the better team and, crucially for Ireland and indeed the competition itself, played the better rugby.
Leicester is a proper rugby town and this club carries a proud heritage, which has created a powerful bond with their knowledgeable and committed supporters. There were several thousand of them at Lansdowne on Saturday and, while gutted by their exit, the Tigers fans were gracious in acknowledging the home side's superiority.
Leicester had no shortage of possession but lacked the incisive edge and threat that Leinster posed every time the ball was moved to Jonathan Sexton and beyond. The Tigers, typified by the charges of No 8 Jordan Crane and centre Manu Tuilagi, banged away with intent but Leinster's defence was never going to be undone by route-one marauders.
Leicester's late try came from some lateral thinking as they parked on the Leinster line and it was a score that, belatedly, might alter the conventional wisdom for close-in operations. Teams persisting with pick-and-goes and pops to static forwards has been a source of consistent bafflement over the past few years when the logical plan (and the one that used to be taught in school) is to have a forward tear onto the ball at pace and from depth.
That is precisely what Tigers substitute Rob Hawkins did after 77 minutes and, for once, the Leinster defence had no answer. It set up a tense few minutes but it was a case of desperation versus discipline before Joe Schmidt's side eventually forced the game-concluding knock-on. Schmidt and his management team deserve tremendous credit, for their extensive preparation work paid off handsomely. Defence and discipline are the bedrocks for Schmidt's side but their set-piece proficiency also stands to them massively.
Even without the suspended Marcos Ayerza, Leicester brought a mighty scrum to Dublin and, though they had Leinster under pressure at various points, Mike Ross -- who had a powerful all-round game -- and his scrummaging cohorts were able to cope.
But it was the line-out where they truly prospered. Buoyed by security on their own throw, Leinster went after the Tigers out of touch, messing up five of their throws. They may have profited from getting away with challenging the arm rather than the ball on a couple of occasions but Leo Cullen had done his homework and when Leicester lost their line-out leader Louis Deacon after 29 minutes, the home side took advantage.
When the ball was moved out, Leinster's superiority was further emphasised. Sexton was in the zone he occupied against England a few weeks previously -- typified by a penalty kick that cannoned off both uprights before dropping over -- and ran his backline affairs with calm authority.
And some of the moves were breath-taking, usually involving the introduction of full-back Isa Nacewa. One line-out move saw the ball swiftly transferred to Eoin Reddan to a pod of forwards who had dropped off the tail, back to Reddan and onto Nacewa, who was coming back on the angle -- Leicester did not know where to turn.
The full-back's wonder try seven minutes after half-time was the crucial score, puncturing the Tiger's strongest period when superb sweeping by Sean O'Brien denied Alessana Tuilagi in the corner, after the giant Samoan had run through the otherwise excellent Brian O'Driscoll. There had been a forward pass in the build-up to Tuilagi's attempt, just as there was for Nacewa's score and when Nigel Owens consulted with his assistant before approving the touchdown it seemed like a measure of justice for the Mike Phillips try in Cardiff.
That made the score 14-3 and, for all the Tigers' commendable industry, you knew there was no way back. It leaves Leinster in a pretty healthy position. They will not face a more physical challenge from Toulouse, or in the final if they get there, and can derive great reassurance from that fact. The rhythm they sought in the build-up was located and they should be even more in the groove for the semi-final on the back of some Magners League outings.
All the various units performed well, from the front five (where Richardt Strauss was outstanding) through the strong back-row displays of Kevin McLaughlin and O'Brien to the half-backs, centres and back three.
Only Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing was not up to par but, again, this is more down to trying to force the issue (over-running passes) than any lack of ability and if he can use the intervening outings to relax mentally, he should be back to his best come the semi-final.
A gripping contest that ended with the correct result and Leicester coach Richard Cockerill acknowledged as much afterwards.
"Leinster were smart enough to keep themselves in the game, to keep the scoreboard ticking over and we just gave ourselves too much to do," said Cockerill. "Against good sides you have to take your chances and if you don't it comes back to bite you on the backside."
Leinster are a very good side and, backed up by the knowledge of their home advantage in the semi-final, the outcome of this competition now looks to be in their hands.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan (F McFadden 75), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 59); C Healy (H van der Merwe 78), R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin (D Ryan 68), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
LEICESTER -- S Hamilton; H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; B Stankovich (J White 75), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 52); L Deacon (E Slater 29), S Mafi; T Croft, C Newby (capt), J Crane (T Waldrom 62).
REF -- N Owens (Wales)