Exeter 22-34 Leinster: Holders DUMPED OUT out of the Champions Cup at Sandy Park after surrendering 14-point lead to Irish heavyweights in gripping quarter-final clash
- Two O’Flaherty tries saw the home side race into a 14-0 lead on Saturday
- One try from Lowe and two from Larmour saw Leinster battle back to win
- Fly-half Byrne kicked 17 points including five penalties for the Irish side
Hovering around the middle of the Sandy Park pitch, savouring the moment with a Facetime call to his family, Stuart Lancaster was the last Englishman standing.
For the former Red Rose coach, this was a day to remember. For everyone else associated with English rugby, it was a weekend to forget, as the Premiership’s last challenger tumbled out in the quarter-finals.
Exeter’s European title defence was brought to a grinding halt. They were beaten at their own game: out-scrummed and outmuscled as Leinster’s pedigree came to the fore. On the biggest club stage before the Lions tour, the likes of Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg and Sam Simmonds were outshone in their duels with Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan and Jack Conan.
Reigning champions Exeter were knocked out of the Champions Cup by Leinster at Sandy Park
For 10 minutes, Exeter showed their true champion quality. Their title defence looked in fine fettle as they stormed to an early 14-0 lead, built upon their trademark structure and physicality.
In a match loaded with international stars, however, it was little-known Tom O’Flaherty who shone brightest in the early exchanges. The pint-sized player, who was rejected by the English academy system, ripped through Irish internationals.
Following a powerful Simmonds break from the base of the scrum, O’Flaherty ran through Keenan and Johnny Sexton to score a first-phase try. Moments later, after 13 phases of attacking play, Slade ghosted past Rory O’Loughlin to set up O’Flaherty’s second.
At that moment, Leinster could have folded. Lancaster watched on, unfazed, and his players showed the composure of four-time champions.
One try from James Lowe and two from Jordan Larmour saw the Irish side battle back
Exeter’s abrasive style is similar to South Africa. Lions coach Warren Gatland will be concerned by the way Sexton was left surrounded by three medics following a crunching hit by Dave Ewers and, after playing a role in James Lowe’s try, taken off early with a head injury.
His replacement, Ross Byrne, stepped up to the challenge, playing a role in Jordan Larmour’s equalising try with his first touch.
Leinster kicked the ball long, inviting the hosts to run it back from deep in their own territory. Whenever they did, the likes of Conan, Ronan Kelleher and Josh van der Flier were waiting to win turnovers. Byrne profited, kicking Leinster to a halftime lead, as Jonny Hill escaped a card for a high tackle.
Exeter edged their way back in front after the break. Ewers scored from a driving lineout, before Joe Simmonds kicked a penalty. But the comeback was short lived.
Leinster’s Ross Byrne made a crucial contribution by kicking 17 points including five penalties
Chiefs were unable to rediscover their structures and, after losing a lineout on their own five-metre line, watched Larmour wrestle over.
Errors crept in as the hosts chased the game, throwing quick lineouts and taking risks. They were turned over, threw forward passes and conceded penalties for poor tackle technique — in contrast to the brilliant execution by Henshaw and his blue wall of defenders.
‘That is what the pressure of a good side can do,’ said Exeter coach Rob Baxter.
Meanwhile, Steve Borthwick refused to comment on any link with him and the Lions tour to South Africa after guiding Leicester to a 39-15 win over Newcastle in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
The Tigers head coach is rumoured to have rejected an approach to join the coaching staff for the tour and said: “I am not interested in anything other than what is happening at Leicester Tigers.’