It was an incredibly bright start from Exeter. They demonstrated exactly what had made them England Premiership champions last year. They hit the game-line incredibly hard, varying it from tight rugby to spreading it wide whilst making sure they had quick and clean ball by clearing out each ruck with proficiency. They were rewarded with a converted try within the opening 2 minutes. They continued this with ruthlessness for the opening 35 minutes or so. They were also very effective in winning turnovers and preventing Leinster building any momentum. Cian Healy didn’t help the cause by giving away a needless yellow card (which could well have been red). Fardy also got sinbinned as well for collapsing a maul when Exeter scored their second try of the game.
After that second try by Exeter they were 17-3 up with only ten minutes or so until halftime and with a man advantage. My feeling was that Leinster were hanging on by a thread and if they conceeded a game it was game over. This is where Leinster had to show their character. They showed incredible courage to start playing some rugby with 14 men and spreading it wide. They clawed and grinded two penalties out of Exeter which meant we walked in to the tunnel at halftime 17-9 down. We gave ourselves a glimmer of hope that despite being completely outplayed and outmuscled we were still in touch with Exeter.
Leinster came out of the blocks in the second half and started with real intensity and this time we continued this for the whole half. Leinster won two penalties and brought it back to 17-15. In fact Leinster didn’t allow Exeter to score in the second point. Leinster’s bench proved a significant difference as well. All the players that came in were able to maintain the same level of intensity and provide go-forward ball. Leavy especially was brilliant when he came on and provided a linebreak and assist for the Luke McGrath try which eventually sealed the game.
For me, there were 3 players who really stood out for Leinster. The first of these was Robbie Henshaw. In a game where Leinster were initially struggling to find any go forward ball, he was called upon to take a lot of crash balls which he took well and delivered consistent gainline success. In defense, he was brilliant and had to make some huge hits and put his body on the line. The second player was Isa Nacewa, he showed inspiring leadership skills. After we conceded the second try he pulled in every player and gave them a passionate team talk which spurred us in to life. He also took over kicking duties when Sexton went off, despite being 3rd choice in Leinster at the moment and he didn’t miss one kick. For me the man of the match was Scott Fardy. In the past when Leinster have been successful, we have always had a enforcer in the second row. Scott Fardy is already looking to be that exact kind of player. He was extremely physical in this game and won important turnovers at the right times.
This was a really good win going forward not just in terms of pool position but psychologically. I always think it is incredibly encouraging to beat a team when they are the better team on the day. It was also great to see a good gritty win. In 09, Leinster had to beat Harlequins playing away and I think it was an important victory en route to winning the trophy that year. I think every team needs this kind of win in a successful cup campaign.