Sexton blow in scare for Blues
Leinster 22 Exeter 17
If by some chance Leinster should go on and win this trophy, they are unlikely to endure a tougher 80 minutes than this. It was an enthralling game, full value for the 40,064 who turned up at the Aviva on a cold day to see what the follow-up to last week would bring.
Its result gives Leinster another leg-up towards a home draw in the quarter-final, the usually unstated aim of any team with ambition in this competition. And Leinster have ambition. It came at a price - it remains to be seen how Johnny Sexton deals with another concussion - and you'd imagine the recovery session today will be long and slow. It was a brutally physical game that could have passed as a make-or-break Test match at the end of a Six Nations.
Given Exeter's pedigree and form, and the pain they endured in losing at Sandy Park last week, the least we expected here was intent. What they layered on top of that was one of those rare enough examples of every man in a squad knowing where he was supposed to be, what he was supposed to do, and how he was going to do it.
It's not easy to play against that. Especially when your playmaker is gone inside three minutes - Sexton never returned from a head injury assessment; when his replacement has to take time out as well with the same complaint; and when two of your forward pack are binned in a first half where the opposition are playing brilliant rugby.
And from their attack shape to their hunger at the breakdown, that was what Exeter were doing. Afterwards Rob Baxter said he could cope with the defeats of the last seven days if it meant his team would be better for the experience. If they are going to get much better than this then domination of Europe will follow their current domination of England.
So for Leinster to come through this with another win was a huge achievement, given the traffic between bench and field. The physical effort was enormous - Tadhg Furlong, who was left on for longer than seemed necessary - played himself to a standstill. And man of the match Isa Nacewa stepped up in every regard, with a 100 per cent return off the tee.
Given the pressure Leinster were under, they really needed those points for Exeter's first 40 minutes had everything bar the sort of return you'd hope from a period in which you had almost 60 per cent possession and territory, and in where your opponents had to make 92 tackles against your 44. That's a savage disparity.
So when Gareth Steenson opted to kick a penalty on 28 minutes, having passed up two earlier kickable awards, you could sense his need to get the scoreboard moving. Happy days for the Devon mob: not only did he nail it for a 10-3 lead - they had got over for a try inside three minutes from Sam Simmonds - but three minutes later he was converting a mauled try for Luke Cowan-Dickie. Better still, it came with a yellow card attached for Scott Fardy for trying to drop the maul early.
That had come only three minutes after Cian Healy returned from the bin for an illegal smash on Cowan-Dickie."No force, no speed," said referee Pascal Gauzerre on the incident. Not only was Healy lucky it wasn't red, but his team were relieved not to concede while he was off.
So at 3-17 Leinster were in big trouble, and greatly appreciative of another three points from Nacewa. Then on the last scrum of the half they passed up the opportunity to get off the pitch and reassess, and instead, from a position just inside the halfway, went in search of something more. It was a brave decision, rewarded just over a minute later with a scud of a penalty from Nacewa from 35 metres after Exeter were penalised at a ruck. So, in the circumstances, 9-17 was not that bad at all.
If you were in the Leinster changing room at the break you'd have been lamenting the number of times in the first 40 that Steenson had carried the ball to the line, pulled it back, and then chose his next play - and all without a finger laid on him.
And if you were down the hall in the pink enclosure then you would have wanted more of the same - and at least to not concede anything for the first 10 minutes, a vital period for the home team in getting back into the game.
As it happened, the away side had a referral upstairs knocked back after they mauled over in the corner just a few minutes into the new half. Had it come back with thumbs up it would have been game over for Leinster.
Still, the home team had a mountain to climb. It was one step at a time: a Nacewa penalty on 55 minutes; another one on 64 to make it a five points game. Both teams looked pretty tired at that point, but with Garry Ringrose and replacement James Ryan getting good traction - Seán Cronin had set the tone from early on - and on 67 minutes another replacement, Dan Leavy, made a great bust off a ruck and put Luke McGrath over from 20 metres. That was the lead for the first time.
That was a huge blow to Exeter who hadn't scored since the 31st minute. And they didn't score again. Epic stuff.
Scorers - Leinster: McGrath try, Nacewa 5 pens, con. Exeter: Skinner, Cowan-Dickie try each; Steenson pen, 2 cons
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton (R Byrne HIA 3; J Larmour HIA 7-16), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 73); C Healy (yc 18-28; J McGrath 56), S Cronin (J Tracy 56), T Furlong (A Porter 73), D Toner (J Ryan 56), S Fardy (yc 31-41), S O'Brien (D Leavy 56), J Conan, J van der Flier (J McGrath 19-28)
Exeter: L Turner (J Short 75); J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten (S Hill 65), O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White (W Chudley blood 7-18; 64); B Moon (A Hepburn 57), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 66), T Francis (H Williams 53), M Lees (J Hill 61), S Skinner, D Armand, S Simmonds, M Kvesic (T Waldrom 69)
Referee: P Gauzerre (France)
Sunday Indo Sport