Joe Schmidt looks for crumbs to comfort losers Leinster
Exeter 20 Leinster 29
While Exeter's head coach Rob Baxter was talking of a new frontier for the Chiefs at their soon to be expanded stadium, his Leinster counterpart Joe Schmidt was caught between a pale face at exiting the Heineken Cup and putting a brave face on the remainder of the season. "We've never won the Amlin Challenge Cup and the final is in Dublin at the RDS so there's things to play for," said Schmidt after Saturday's four-try win at Sandy Park, with the prediction that results would relegate the reigning Heineken champions to the second-tier event. "There is also the Pro 12: we have lost three finals in a row and this might give us clear air to have a crack at that."
Sure enough Munster – of all people and with the advantage of knowing what they need to do in advance – trounced a weakened Racing Metro in Limerick yesterday, leaving Leinster as runners-up in Pool Five, unable to progress as a lucky loser. Injuries and a tough pool that was won by Clermont Auvergne have done for the team who were champions in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
"One of the fall-downs for us has been the structure, where you have two semi-finalists [from last season] in the same pool," said Schmidt, though he did not advocate any change in the set-up. "I'm pretty pragmatic over what I can and can't control." One troubling matter is the contract of fly-half Jonathan Sexton, who has received big-money offers from French clubs. "Jonny will be in demand as he is a super player and a super kid," Schmidt said of the 27-year-old who is expected to feature for the Lions this summer.
"The Irish RFU are doing their darnedest to wind that up but I know the realities. I hope one way or another – one way to be honest – it is sorted out by the end of the week. I don't think he needs it heading into the Six Nations."
Three of Leinster's existing Lions luminaires – Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney – have only recently returned from injury and they encountered an Exeter team playing hard for their supporters despite knowing that Europe in both its forms was over for them before kick-off.
Leinster are the fifth holders to be knocked out in the following season's pool stage, joining Ulster (1999-2000), Northampton (2000-01) and Wasps (2004-05 and 2007-08).
The Chiefs were excellent in the battle after the tackle, even though they lost their England flanker Tom Johnson to a leg injury in the first half, and they forced two tries from line-outs. "They've got a tight five that works incredibly hard," said Schmidt, "and allows their defensive line to spread the width of the field."
Baxter was bullish about Exeter's future. "We're a little way off Leinster and Clermont but it never works like that," said Baxter. "When you play against these teams you can't sit there and go, 'Oh, we're nearly there'. You get out there and give it everything you've got, and the experience makes your players better. What we encourage our guys to do is live it and experience it, not be scared of it and run away from it. The bigger picture is stage by stage to make bigger crowds want to come and watch it because they like the big teams coming here. That develops revenue, which develops playing budgets and other good players watching your team play well makes recruitment easier."
The summer should see development of Sandy Park on the west and south sides to increase capacity towards 20,000. The club also bought additional Aviva Premiership shares from Leeds Carnegie last year to raise their central funding.
"How long will it take? It's how long is a piece of string," said Baxter. "A lot of things need to happen and it all becomes a cycle you have to work through over a long period of time. Clermont are an example. They have been at it a long time without winning the Heineken Cup, but they might get there this year.
"We've been quite good at the way we've built the club. For me, the way we play and want people to see us play, is part of the bigger picture. I don't want people coming here thinking they're going to watch Exeter try to avoid relegation, kick the ball and chase it because we're scared of losing.
"You've got to move beyond that if you ever want to get towards the top. We're in a transition period where we're desperate to be ambitious. Sooner or later we need to knock over a Leinster or a Clermont."
Exeter: Tries Clark, penalty try; Conversions Steenson 2; Penalties Steenson 2.
Leinster: Tries D'Arcy, Kearney, O'Driscoll, Heaslip; Conversions Sexton 3.
Exeter L Arscott; I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, J Shoemark (N Sestaret, 78), M Jess; G Steenson, K Barrett (W Chudley, 53); B Moon (C Rimmer, 53), N Clark (J Yeandle, 78), H Tui (C Mitchell, 62), T Hayes (capt, J Hanks, 54), D Mumm, T Johnson (B White, 14), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.
Leinster R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (I Madigan, 78), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss, 54); C Healy (H van der Merwe, 66), R Strauss (S Cronin, 40), M Ross (M Bent, 66), L Cullen (capt), D Toner, K McLaughlin (R Ruddock, 60), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Referee R Poite (France).
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