For our latest Throwback Thursday we’re only going back a year to the 2021/22 Champions Cup quarterfinal at Welford Road, and the fact that they played us this recently is one of many reasons why they cannot be taken for granted on Good Friday.
As we all know, bonus points don’t matter a damn in knockout rugby. All you want to do is have at least one more point than the other lot at full time.
But that isn’t the only margin that can be significant in these matches. 8 and 15 are also ones to be aware of because they give you a cushion that makes your opposition need two or three scores to claw you back.
This means that if you can get yourself ahead on the scoreboard early enough, there’s no need to go hell for leather for the rest of the match, especially when you know victory will give you just a week to prepare to go again, this time against the reigning champions no less. Obviously you have to be wary of switching off altogether, but with a “smart” approach you can definitely do all you can to shepherd the lead home.
On Saturday at Welford Road, while there may not have been too many “You Tube moments” to savour, what you did see was Leinster wringing out every last drop of extra European experience they had over their hosts to first build a three score lead and then gradually see it through to the final whistle.
Naturally we needed a bit of luck along the way, every winning team does, but on a day when fans are bound to be nervous whether their team are favourites or not (even if they predicted a win in their own preview) the boys in blue made their return to Leo Cullen’s stomping ground look perhaps not “easy” or “comfortable”, but definitely controlled.
So let’s go through the eighty minutes and see how things transpired, though as you can see, events from elsewhere made that a bit difficult…
Here’s the thing. Virtually every time I writeup Leinster & Ireland matches for these pages, I take minute by minute notes as it’s being played, before one, sometimes two rewatches on the way to doing the writeup. This one time, being unable to travel, I chose to accept an invitation to a friend’s place to enjoy the action with a few beers as nature intended for the typical fan.
And since the “warmup” quarterfinal at the Aviva Stadium went the way it did forcing the first 15 minutes at Welford Road onto another channel, it meant I was unable to find a recording of the full match which in turn meant my recollection of the first quarter is a little sketchy to say the least.
What I do remember is that on our first bout of possession it looked for a moment that the Tigers had really done their homework on the Sexton wraparound move when George Ford got in the way, meaning a pass went straight to Chris Ashton, leaving me feeling that this could be a long afternoon. But thankfully the officials spotted they came from an offside position, meaning Sexton was able to calmly put us into the lead by three points.
The next twelve minutes or so are a bit of a blur, partly because it has been a couple of days but mostly because I had been drinking since kickoff in the Munster match, but to be fair the recording I did get begins just as they are showing highlights of Josh van der Flier’s try so I’m happy to harp on that with or without context!!!
As ever, we badly needed our lineouts to perform, especially in the opposition 22, and this one from the just-returned Rónan Kelleher to Jack Conan was a thing of beauty, thrown with just the right pace and caught just at the top of its arc and as our hosts might have expected us to set up a maul, instead it was Josh van der Flier who took it and charged towards the line.
Maybe I have said the whole “he’s been working on his carrying” line is getting a bit old, but when he can charge through first one, then two tackles at the line to still be able to reach out and get the ball down, maybe it’s a phrase we should keep on using if only for good luck.
Next I have to apologise to skipper Sexton for having little faith in his kick off the boot after he struck it; I thought it would drift left but instead it held its line and went just inside the upright which meant that after just 15 minutes we had already established a two-score lead.
The match had its first bit of controversy shortly after the restart when James Lowe’s booming exit kick was taken by Ford to be sent back in our direction. The home fans were convinced Ford had been hit late by Hugo Keenan. For me, well, it could have been given though HK was slowing himself down when contact was made. Anyway, there was further pain for the Tigers in that they were themselves pinged instead, for being offside ahead of the kicker.
Now we’re back with the attacking lineout again, only it’s outside their 22. This time it’s Molony taking the confident dart and it’s sent straight to the backs where Robbie Henshaw seeks out contact and pumps his legs until we’re well into their 22 on the front foot.
From here there’s further strong carries by Furlong, Conan, Doris among others, each time with Jamison Gibson-Park directing the traffic like he has been doing in both blue and green all season. Eventually on the 12th phase Conan has two latchers as he drags it to within inches of the line right under the posts as the referee signals a penalty advantage.
But the advantage won’t be needed as just like back at the start of the move, JGP fires a miss pass to Henshaw only this time, his momentum is getting him over the line for try number two, after which a conversion hands us that coveted 15+ point cushion.
Long, long way to go of course, but still a lead any team would have gladly taken if offered at kickoff.
This was a quarter that had just the one score, but it was still eventful nonetheless as it was more about Leicester’s inability to get the duck egg off the scoreboard.
As you can see below in our latest TikTok video, their failure to score was partly down to being unable to get their plans to crack our defence to work, and partly down to not having a plan at all when one was needed…
When it comes to the controlled confidence I’m saying Leinster displayed on the day, most of that was shown on defence, and when your performance without the ball is at that level it can effect other areas of the game, like decision making for both sides.
But it wasn’t all about our actual defensive tackling cordon when it came to keeping the home side out – on an attacking lineout in our 22, an area where the Tigers have been known to succeed with a rolling maul or two in their day, James Ryan made sure nobody had forgotten him since he was forced onto the sidelines by snaffling the dart and we were able to clear.
And shortly after that last play in the video when the home side let the transition opportunity pass and instead put up a routine high ball, there was Jamison Gibson-Park burrowing his way to a jackled penalty in their half, offering his captain and fellow halfback the chance to push our lead even further to 20, one he duly took.
Finally for this half, if there was ever to be evidence the rugby gods were on our side, it was when Keenan was forced into touch in his own 22 a teeny tiny fraction of a second after the clock went red to end the half, denying them one last chance, although the way our defence was looking we could well have snuffed out that danger too.
My halftime tweet showed my own confidence was beginning to match Leinster’s.
Only a fool would’ve been surprised by a Leicester fightback after the break. Steve Borthwick hasn’t assembled this team and gotten them to the top of the Premiership without knowing how to make the right changes at halftime when things aren’t going so well.
And in many ways they seemed to be doing what they were doing towards the end of the first half, only better and more focused. We were really on the back foot during this period and it could have gone several different ways.
For one lineout they threw to the front again, only instead of sending it back to the thrower, this also became a maul, one which had enough traction to get all the way to the line. Even here our defence was holding out around the breakdown except when it was sent wide at just the right moment, George Ford found just the right miss pass to Ashton and he was over in the corner.
A beautiful strike from out wide by Ford made it seven and there was still a long way to go. Now the confidence was showing in Leicester’s play, with Ford and skipper Genge leading from the front. But for me, the remainder of this quarter was easily the most significant of the match.
On the one hand, you could say we saw out this spell, one in which we barely made it out of our own half with the ball once, because of the strong defence I was harping on earlier. But on the other hand, as the BT graphics people were more than happy to point out, we did ship a lot of penalties in a row.
My own words are coming back to haunt me now – just last week against the Stormers I was complaining that the ref had given the home side a warning without following up on it. Here, if we really did give up that many consecutive sanctions, we probably should have been told the next one would mean a card as well.
That said, there was also the question of what the Tigers were doing with those penalties. Some of them were very much in kickable positions and I reckon getting themselves to double digits would be a huge psychological advantage. Instead they went for the jugular and, well, missed when it mattered.
When Nemani Nadolo came onto the pitch you can hear Ben Kay in the commentary box saying “this might change things”. Well he did crash over the line in trademark fashion at one point in this critical spell only to be held up brilliantly by both Jimmy O’Brien and JVDF.
From there they went back for yet another penalty advantage which was put to touch for yet another lineout, only for there to be yet another brilliant grab by James Ryan to deny them yet another rolling maul.
At other times the blue brick wall was standing firm with phase after phase going nowhere, and high balls sent into the Leicester evening sky being caught well by the likes of Jimmy O’Brien and Hugo Keenan.
Obviously for all our success in thwarting our hosts we really needed something to happen to allow us some time down the other end of the pitch and it finally came on 61m when a big hit by James Lowe on Harry Potter (I really really want to make some wizard references here but I’d say they’ve all been done to death by others covering Leicester by now) and when Henshaw recovered the ball, Gibson-Park’s first instinct was to send it deep into opposition territory, like perhaps Ben Youngs should have done when the boot was on the other foot.
Since JGP went on to earn Player of the Match, (and rightly so, I felt vindicated for singling him out during the week on the Rolling Maul Podcast for Tigers fans) we’ll take it that it was his kick was perfectly placed and it found grass just inside the 22, allowing enough chasers to get there in time for JVDF (another PotM contender, AGAIN) to block Potter’s clearance before Weise just beat his opposite number 8 Conan to get the ball down. However, because he carried over the line first, it meant there was a scrum to Leinster.
Just to recap, since that Ashton try, the Tigers had done all they could to add to their score to no avail. Now moments after our first touch of the ball in their 22 since the break, we had an attacking 5m scrum. And when Jack Conan took it from the base to just under the posts only for their sub scrum half Richard Wigglesworth (no stranger to beating us in Europe of course) to take out the 9 giving us an easy penalty for Ross Byrne, on at this stage for Sexton (was that booing as he left?), to slot the three.
All of which meant that for those still keeping tabs on the numbers I was on about at the start of this article, our 13-point cushion was now pushed to 16, which meant three scores were needed once more, and now there were only fifteen minutes left.
Up to this point, I haven’t really mentioned penalties awarded at scrums. And I’m delighted that I haven’t needed to, given what happened at Twickenham the last time Ellis Genge squared off against Tadhg Furlong, with this same referee Reynal I might add.
Now it’s not like there were absolutely no penalties at all on the day, there were, but they were distributed pretty much evenly. Maybe the French referees heard us all complaining about them making their mind up for the first few scrum and going the same way. Or, maybe that’s just a stupid narrative that isn’t real.
But for those final fifteen minutes it wasn’t just the penalties at scrum which were a feature, it was more the amount of resets – which are naturally going to benefit the team ahead on the scoreboard. I can’t blame the Tigers for thinking this was going to be an area where they could dominate us, but it has to be said the penalties awarded both ways seemed fair, with Michael Ala’alatoa doing well in his cameo for Furlong.
As the clock was in the high seventies, one rolling maul did find its way over the line as their sub hooker Nic Dolly got it down to make the final score look more respectable but even from the kickoff our defence wasn’t letting them off the hook and we practically bullied them in their own 22 until they turned it over only for Ross Byrne to put it dead to call it a day.
Far from a classic but like I said, when it’s our team playing in a one off match, we want wins not classics. And I really don’t think anyone is disputing that the better team won.
As always after results like these, you do have some commentators making the usual moans about how Irish provinces are put together and how many internationals we have and how it’s all unfair and blah blah blah but one thing is for sure, you never heard anything like that from Leicester Tigers captain Ellis Genge who to his credit soundly rejected the narrative at the post-match presser.
Back on our side, you have to be happy with the performance – I’ve been saying all season how even though we’re top of the URC our matchday squads for Europe seem to find an extra level when it comes to focus, professionalism, cohesion or whatever other buzzwords you might want to use.
There was also a chance to give a European debut and there’s no doubt Joe McCarthy has earned it with some fine displays in the URC this season. Pretty sure it won’t be long before he’s starting on these occasions.
Finally on the Tigers themselves I can only say it again that European experience was the difference. I can totally see them back competing at this stage again next year, only very liekly as Premiership champions and a much better chance of progressing.
On the Harpin podcast during the week I’ll be chatting to a Leinster fan who travelled to Welford Road about the whole experience and then our attention, naturally will turn to our semifinal date with Toulouse next Saturday at 3pm. Stay tuned to this page as well as any or all of our social media channels to catch our usual features like previews and such. Thanks as ever for sticking with the writeup to the end. JLP