Tuesday 16 January 2018

Newcomers scare nervy Leinster

JOHN O'BRIEN

IF Leinster are to make history this season and win three Heineken Cups back to back, it's possible they'll face no sterner opponents than they encountered in the RDS yesterday.

Against a club making their debut in Europe's premier competition, Joe Schmidt's side had to call on all their wits and experience to eke out a nervy 9-6 win over Exeter Chiefs.

Boy, was it tight. Leinster seemed to have survived a spirited late surge from their opponents when Exeter were awarded a penalty just inside the halfway line as the clock ticked past 80 minutes. It gave replacement outhalf Ignacio Mieres the chance to steal an invaluable draw for his side. Mieres' kick had the length, all right, but not the accuracy and Leinster survived after receiving the fright of their lives.

So no winning bonus point as they would have anticipated, but it wasn't as if Leinster played badly. Exeter, superbly led by John Hayes' brother Tom, were brilliantly organised, lacked nothing in confidence and defended with great discipline and determination. Sandy Park in Devon is likely to be a tough place to go this season.

In all, it wasn't a particularly auspicious day for the provinces: Leinster scraping home against Pool Five's supposed whipping boys, Munster floundering in the mud in Paris, Connacht having to grind out a win against Zebre in Italy.

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Munster will have some soul-searching to do after their bracing defeat in Paris. They left, at least, with a losing bonus point, but only after a performance that scarcely merited it. With Saracens thumping of Michael Bradley's Edinburgh 45-0 at Murrayfield, the days of regarding Munster as cast-iron certainties to reach the knockout stages may be past.

It was an utterly perplexing game. Made for Munster, it seemed, with the rain pelting down and the pitch cutting up. Yet this is a team in transition under a new coach and, despite racing into a 10-point lead, they lost their way. By the hour mark, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell had been forced off and Munster were struggling: short of leaders, bereft of ideas.

And yet, incredibly, they almost snatched it. A true flash of genius from Simon Zebo to touch down, a conversion from Ian Keatley to nudge them back in front. But, just when they thought they'd nicked it, Conor Murray gifted Olly Barkley the chance to restore Racing's lead and make it a day that Munster, and Murray, in particular, will want to forget.

Nor did Connacht have it easy when they travelled to Parma to face European Cup newbies Zebre, but with Dan Parks contributing 14 points, Eric Elwood's men managed to grind out a 19-10 victory but failed to secure the bonus point that would have enhanced their prospects of making it out of the pool stages for the first time.

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