Leinster fought back from 14 points down to beat the Exeter Chiefs 34-22 in their Champions Cup quarter-final at Sandy Park on Saturday.
Gameflow: The defending champion Chiefs made a flying start with wing Tom O’Flaherty ripping the Leinster defence to shreds on his way to scoring a quick-fire brace within the opening 10 minutes. Throughout that spell, the visitors were reduced to bystanders. But a Test-laden side like Leinster were always going to work through their early game jitters and mount a comeback. And so it was, as the PRO14 champions scored 20 straight points – two converted tries and two penalties – for a 20-14 lead at the break.
Exeter found their second wind at the start of the second half, moving within a point on the scoreboard. But Leinster extended their advantage with a second try from Larmour and two more penalty goals from the boot of Byrne. The Chiefs did create a few scoring opportunities towards the end of the game, but their attempts were hindered by a combination of unforced errors and dogged Leinster defence. And, in the last minute, Byrne sealed Leinster’s fate – and to an extent Exeter’s too – when he knocked over another three-pointer.
Turning point: The injury-enforced substitution of Johnny Sexton was thought to be a major setback in Leinster’s quest to take down Exeter. The 35-year-old suffered a head injury and went off in the 27th minute to undergo an HIA, which he failed, thus ruling him out of the remainder of the contest. But the introduction of Ross Byrne as Sexton’s replacement would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The 26-year-old injected pace and urgency into the game to successfully spark Leinster to life. Byrne provided the try assist for Jordan Larmour’s first try to have Leinster draw level and he kicked a conversion and five penalties.
Saffa watch: Jacques Vermeulen started for the Chiefs, but he wasn’t as effective as he would have liked to be. In his 51-minute cameo, he made just 14 run metres from five carries, seven tackles and one turnover. Vermeulen was replaced by compatriot Jannes Kirsten, who had a solid 30 minutes on the park despite being on the losing side.