And then there were none. This year’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final draw still awaits but there will be no English involvement for the fourth time in the past 11 years. Exeter Chiefs played a full part in a pulsating quarter-final but the defending champions eventually had to bow to a Leinster side who were smarter and less prone to errors as the big-match tension rose.
Both sides had standout individuals out wide, with Leinster’s Jordan Larmour and Exeter’s Tom O’Flaherty contributing a brace of tries apiece, but ultimately Leinster’s territorial superiority and defensive energy was decisive. Even in the absence of Johnny Sexton, who was forced off inside the first half-hour, the Irish province fully deserved their victory.
Exeter, who went 14-0 up early on, were left to regret their inability to take their customary grip on proceedings in the final 30 minutes. “We can play better than we did today,” acknowledged Rob Baxter, their director of rugby. “We’ll be frustrated with some things on review but a lot of that is credit to Leinster. They kept an intensity in the game which meant we never really settled.”
The hosts could not have made a better start, registering two eye-catching tries inside the first seven minutes. In both cases questions could be asked about Leinster’s defensive solidity but the Chiefs’ ambition and execution could not be faulted. The first score also showcased the blistering pace of Sam Simmonds off the base of the scrum, the No 8 making good ground before the equally alert Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds put O’Flaherty past a trailing Sexton to finish off the slick first move.
Leinster barely had time to draw breath before they were back under their own sticks again. This time, after a lung-busting period of pressure, it was the artful Henry Slade who dummied his way clean through the midfield and fed O’Flaherty. The winger wriggled free to score and give Joe Simmonds his second easy conversion.
Their early momentum, however, was to prove a mirage. Hugo Keenan managed to offload to James Lowe who scored in the left corner and Leinster began to enjoy more joy at the breakdown. Despite the loss of a clearly frustrated Sexton Leinster continued to play with purpose, and once again it was Keenan who popped up to send the rapid Larmour diving over, this time in the right corner.
Now it was Exeter’s turn to dig deep. Territorially Leinster were keeping them at arm’s length and both Rónan Kelleher and Josh van der Flier were causing their opponents problems on the floor. Ross Byrne, on for Sexton, chipped the visitors in front before a shoulder-high tackle by the hulking Jonny Hill on the replacement fly-half just before half-time was referred to the TMO. On this occasion there was to be no card but another successful Byrne penalty extended their lead to 20-14.
With the breeze in their faces in the second-half, Leinster knew the job was far from done. Exeter pride themselves on their ability to come on strong after the interval and a major test of Leinster’s collective mettle in the absence of James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose now loomed.
Sure enough, it was the hosts who came storming out of the blocks fastest. Another coruscating O’Flaherty break forced the concession of a penalty in front of the posts, which was kicked to the corner in typical Chiefs fashion. Would Leinster be able to resist the inevitable lineout drive? The answer was no, as Dave Ewers surged over for his fourth try in as many games.
Leinster, though, were not going away. Byrne regained the lead with his third penalty and in the 57th minute a stolen line-out supplied the field position which eventually saw Larmour twist impressively out of Joe Simmonds’s tackle to score his second.
Two further Byrne penalties ratcheted up the pressure further and, for once, the proud men of Exeter had no answer.