Leinster keep euro dream alive
April 9, 2011
Leinster fullback Isa Nacewa breaks away to score during a tense clash at Lansdowne Road
© Getty Images
Leinster booked a place in this season's Heineken Cup semi-finals with a well-deserved 17-10 victory over Leicester at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on Saturday.
A try from fullback Isa Nacewa and four penalties from fly-half Jonathan Sexton carried the Irish province past their Premiership rivals and set up a final four showdown with either Biarritz or Toulouse, who meet on Sunday.
Leicester No.10 Toby Flood kept his side in touch with a first-half penalty but the visitors - looking to avenge their 2009 final defeat - repeatedly failed to break down a resolute Leinster defence with a late try for replacement hooker Rob Hawkins proving too little, too late.
A fired-up Leinster dominated the early exchanges, with a kick through from Nacewa opening up the Leicester defence and while the Tigers scrambled back to avert the danger they did so illegally, allowing Sexton to open the scores from the kicking tee. But Flood, looking to erase the memory of England's recent Six Nations defeat to Ireland on the same ground, levelled the scores moments later after centre Brian O'Driscoll had played the ball in an offside position.
That score appeared to give the Tigers the confidence to play and they peppered the Leinster defence, but got little change. And the home side quickly turned defence into attack when Leicester winger Horacio Agulla failed to claim a kick ahead, with centre Gordon D'Arcy leading the Leinster charge only to be flattened by a crunching tackle from Tigers midfielder Manu Tuilagi.
The battle at the breakdown was as fierce, and pivotal, as expected and another Leicester infringement was punished by Sexton's boot - with a little help from both posts. The Irish international was equally impressive kicking out of hand to take his side deep into Leicester territory, where O'Driscoll and No.8 Jamie Heaslip went close before winger Luke Fitzgerald failed to hold onto a simple scoring pass from the Man of the Match - hooker Richardt Strauss.
Leicester lacked the same intensity with ball in hand and while they enjoyed plenty of possession they struggled to make it pay, with Flood and scrum-half Ben Youngs penalised for going off their feet in the shadow of the Leinster posts. In contrast, Leinster fizzed when in possession and O'Driscoll and Nacewa worked another opening only for a miscommunication leading to another handling error from Fitzgerald.
The Leicester pack claimed a minor victory at the next scrum but were crucially stripped of the services of lock Louis Deacon to injury moments later, with Ed Slater drafted into action from the bench. The change would have a detrimental effect on the Tigers' lineout but did not hinder their limited ambition with Tuilagi taking the attack to hosts only for a forward pass to let the move down.
Leinster wasted no time in cranking up the pressure on Leicester's inexperienced second-row pairing and a good spell of pressure from the home side led to another penalty against the Tigers/ The visitors got a final warning from referee Nigel Owens as Sexton lined up what would be his third successful kick.
Leicester carved the first opening of the second-half with a chip and chase from Agulla and the commitment of his forwards at the breakdown offered reason for hope. The ball was then worked wide to Alesana Tuilagi, who brushed off O'Driscoll on his way to the line only for the Television Match Official to rule he had been forced into touch by industrious flanker Kevin McLaughlin. The officials had also missed an earlier forward pass in the move.
Leinster responded by driving deep into the Tigers' 22, where Fitzgerald's bad day continued, but his latest error was soon forgotten following a moment of magic from Nacewa. A loose kick from Youngs was pounced upon by the Leinster No.15 and his suspiciously forward pass to winger Shane Horgan sparked the game's decisive score. Horgan's line caught Leicester napping and Nacewa took the return pass before exploiting a slip from opposite number Scott Hamilton, and a forward-heavy cover defence, with a weaving run to the line that culminated with a superb stretch to touch the ball down.
Nathan Hines' failure to stay on his feet at the breakdown handed Flood a chance to post an immediate reply but his Six Nations demons returned as he pulled his effort wide of the posts.
The Tigers raised their game as the contest entered the final quarter, with No.8 Jordan Crane seeing plenty of ball, but the Leinster defence held firm against a side running out of ideas and energy. Leicester introduced Thomas Waldrom in the hope that the strong-running No.8 could force an opening but Leinster flanker Sean O'Brien and McLaughlin were in no mood to make way.
Manu Tuilagi made significant gains when afforded some rare space by the Leinster defence but another promising move came to a disappointing end with Slater losing the ball in contact as he looked to keep it alive.
Leicester were forced into some desperate measures in an attempt to rescue the game but their gamble failed to pay off and Leinster almost closed the game out with another sweeping move that was ended by a great tackle from flanker Tom Croft on Hines. But Leinster continued to press and Sexton's fourth penalty saw them all but book a place in the semi-finals.
The game was not over and Leicester dug deep, with the Tuilagi brothers and lock Steve Mafi earning some hard yards. Hawkins ran a great line to power over for a try from close range with just four minutes left on the clock. Flood's excellent conversion brought the visitors back to within seven points and they immediately went in search of another score in the hope of forcing extra time.
Waldrom proved elusive on the 22 and he found support in Mafi but a knock on from Crane ended their hopes of a late turnaround and handed Leinster a priceless place in the final four.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can follow him on Twitter.
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