After a fantastic performance last weekend, Leinster secured a hard fought win against Toulon! Leinster are through to another Champions Cup quarter final, by default. It’s not a great way to get through to this stage of the competition, but following a COVID-19 case within the Toulon camp, unfortunately the game was cancelled, and under Champions Cup guidelines meant that Leinster would progress to the next round. So here we are!!
Despite the manner in which we have got to this point, it’s potentially a small blessing in disguise. A bulk of Leinster players were just parachuted back in from 6 Nations duty two weeks ago and straight into the Pro14 final against Munster; which they won and secured a 4th league title in a row, 8 altogether, and sets up a nice drive for five next season (sorry, couldn’t resist). So, maybe it’s a good thing that the Leinster squad had an extra week off to rest, regroup and prepare for what lies in wait. This weekend, what lies in wait is a somewhat familiar opponent, Exeter Chiefs. They are a team that first entered the competition in 2012, and their very first game was against Leinster where we won 9-6 thanks to a missed Exeter penalty at full time. Since then, we have faced them 3 times; again in 2012 and home and away during the pool stages of the 2017/18 Champions Cup campaign. Leinster have prevailed in each of those meetings and although Exeter were very much a strong force in 2018, they have since gone on to become the best team in Europe having won the Champions Cup last season, and also the English Premiership. The evolution of this club has been massive since we last faced them in 2018 so expect a much tougher battle tomorrow in their own back yard.
It’s the second year in a row that we will face the current champions, last year it was Saracens and now Exeter this season. Needless to say, it’s a tough entry into the knockouts but if you want to lift silverware in this competition, there’s no avoiding the toughest challengers along the way!
Following an extra week of preparation for Leinster, the lads will hopefully have had time to fully analyse the Exeter setup and focus on key areas of our game that needs to be on point and indeed adapted for this weekend. The reason why I say adapted is because the style in which Exeter play is quite unique, they have powerful ball carriers and zippy wingers and fullbacks, but they tend to use a siege approach in the 22 where they take their time with pick and drives to eventually get over the line with some final brute force. They don’t rush things at all, they don’t mind if their tries aren’t pretty, they just barge their way to the tryline and most teams are incapable of stopping them. Their success rate when deploying this approach is incredibly high. As a result, Leinster’s defensive power will be tested big time!
Here is the squad Cullen and Co. have selected:
15. Hugo Keenan (25)
14. Jordan Larmour (55)
13. Rory O’Loughlin (80)
12. Robbie Henshaw (54)
11. James Lowe (49)
10. Johnny Sexton (172) CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath (145)
1. Cian Healy (227)
2. Rónan Kelleher (20)
3. Tadhg Furlong (110)
4. Scott Fardy (75)
5. Devin Toner (262)
6. Rhys Ruddock (186)
7. Josh van der Flier (92)
8. Jack Conan (101)
16. James Tracy (125)
17. Ed Byrne (65)
18. Andrew Porter (72)
19. Ross Molony (112)
20. Ryan Baird (20)
21. Hugh O’Sullivan (28)
22. Ross Byrne (98)
23. Dave Kearney (165)
There’s no major shock in the starting lineup and the bench really. Apart from having no Doris, Ryan, Ringrose and Leavy which we knew about before the team selection, the only noticeable absence is Gibson-Park on the bench. He will be a big loss for us, it would have been great to have him ready to bring on at some stage in the match. That being said, there are 21 internationals in the 23 so there’s no major loss in experience.
Another interesting change is regarding Dave Kearney. He has been in incredible form but will make way for James Lowe in the starting 15. I feel Dave will be a better impact sub than Lowe who has had more of a rest in recent weeks, so this selection change will hopefully play into our hands. Sexton will captain the side and will be crucial in order to keep the team not only playing in the right areas of the pitch, but also keeping the game plan ticking over.
Where the game will be won
Leinster came into last season’s quarter final in great form and had all of the skill and confidence to go in and do a number on a Saracens team that
cheated powered their way to glory the previous season. The manner in which Leinster lost that quarter final was very disappointing not only to the players, but the supporters looking on. It was a very uncharacteristic performance from the boys in blue, one that was highly frustrating to watch. Although they came back very strong in the second half, they never truly looked like winning. Something seriously went wrong in how they approached the match and leadership on the pitch was very much left wanting. As Cullen mentioned in the post match interview that day, his team were “spooked” from the off. That was a very worrying comment from the coach of 4 times champions who generally show their most clinical and ruthless performances in the knock-outs of competitions.
There’s been some talk of this throughout the week and some players have cited that they will need to draw on the disappointment and lessons learned from that game, but also fully refocus on the game at hand. I feel that the way in which Leinster focus their mindset on this game will be key. They need to go in with massive confidence and impose their style of play on their opponents, something that was clearly lacking at this stage last season. No half passing, no running straight into walls and no feelings of doubt. Exeter are a very confident team who are well noted for playing full 80’s and rarely losing focus. Look at last weekend when they played Lyon. Ok, Lyon aren’t at the same level as Leinster but Exeter went 14 nil down early on but rather than curl up and go into self destruct mode, they weathered the storm brilliantly and then blew Lyon away with a massive win. Now I’m not saying Leinster wouldn’t manage a 14 nil lead much better than Lyon, in fact, they’d probably kick on and extend that out further given the chance, but it’s a sign that even if Leinster get an early lead, they will need to be laser focused on keeping it as once Exeter get a sniff of a try and indeed an entry point back into a game, they don’t need to be given a second opportunity.
Exeter’s form in the Gallagher Premiership has been iffy at best, having lost a third of their matches in recent months. They have been desperately integrating their internationals back into their squad since the end of the 6 Nations, albeit not many, but this poses an opportunity for Leinster. I don’t think Exeter are at their best yet so if Leinster can rattle them early on, they could open up some gaps in defense and capitalise on the scoreboard.
Both teams like to move the ball around and use a powerful pack to build momentum and front foot football. I can see a fair few tries being scored as both sides will know that 3 pointers won’t fully determine the outcome on the scoreboard. Unlike Leinster’s last game against Munster, they will need to be more switched on and accurate around the try line. Exeter’s attack is their biggest threat, so Leinster will need to focus on the counterattack as this is where Exeter can fumble and miss tackles. A pressure game plan will need to be deployed, similar to the Pro14 final where we didn’t give Munster any time to ponder about their next move with ball in hand. We benefited greatly from moving up quickly and challenging every pass of the ball. That style of game will disrupt Exeter and challenge them to adopt another approach.
Unless it’s disrupted, Exeter will look to deploy that siege approach; kick for our corners and/or carry hard and tight in our 22. Leinster will need to put on a massive defensive performance in those scenarios, which in fairness is a part of their game which is generally rock solid. A massive battle in that area awaits, but don’t forget about Leinster’s talents too. Leinster’s pack should dominate a lot in scrum and at the breakdown. Given we have in my opinion one of the best scrum halves in Europe right now based on current form, we should be able to shift the ball out side to lads like Lowe and Larmour who will threaten this tight playing Exeter pack. If Henshaw carries his remarkable form into this game, he’ll be a key man to our success.
Historically, Leinster has had a knack of upping the performance levels and bringing their A game to knock out games and finals. I see the game tomorrow as a mini-final for Leinster. After only two losses in the Champions Cup since 2018, but those losses coming in knockout games, there will be a lot of residual pain from those losses and they will harness that and convert it to hunger. I feel they will come out the blocks early to lay down a huge marker in the game and score first. They’ll need the intensity of a final to win this game, and I feel that they will bring it. My cheeky predicution is that Lowe will score first and we’ll hold the lead throughout. Exeter certainly will not lie down, they’ll fight hard and test every limit of our squad’s capability, but I believe come full time it will be Exeter that will Exet the Champions Cup. This does have the feeling of a mini final and although Leinster won’t lift any silverware after the game, the win will undoubtedly lift their spirits after previous knock-out failures, just in time for the semi’s!
Exeter 20 – Leinster 28
Match day score: Exeter 22 – Leinster 34