The Heineken Cup, for Leinster, is transformed today from a glory trail into an anxious waiting game. Fair play to the reigning champions – knowing they needed to become only the third team in any competition to wrest a bouns-point win from a trip to Exeter since the Chiefs joined the Premiership in 2010, they did just that, albeit the home team's interest in Europe was over before the start.
Leinster's campaign had been hampered at its mid-point by their back-to-back losses to Clermont Auvergne in December. And so the Heineken champions of three of the last four years – lording it over the continent with winning finals in Edinburgh (2009), Cardiff (2011) and London (2012) – were scrapping for their lives in Devon, out of town between the M5 and Exeter's new-build housing estates. They were playing for the remaining best runners-up spot with Montpellier, and knew a bonus would give them a fighting chance of staying ahead of the runners-up in the pools involving Munster, Saracens, Leicester and Toulouse, to be concluded today.
The most painful prospect for Leinster is that they could be ousted by Munster. Excitingly, the last eight is set to include a handful of clubs who have never won the title: Harlequins, Clermont, Toulon, Saracens and Montpellier.
Leinster set off with a score that augured well but also highlighted a flaw that would dog them all evening. A scrum penalty for Exeter wheeling in the Leinster half was booted to touch by Jonny Sexton and though the home team stole the ball at the line-out they were penalised for Hoani Tui taking the knock-down from an offside position.
Sexton went to touch again – a tactic copied by Exeter, who knew they were heading out of Europe whatever the result – and after Devin Toner's catch and a ruck or two, Gordon D'Arcy bobbed and weaved rather too easily past Matt Jess for a try that Sexton converted.
Exeter were further unsettled by seeing their England flanker Tom Johnson taken off on a stretcher – a knee ligament injury is suspected, which would put him in doubt for England in the Six Nations openeragainst Scotland on 2 February – but the replacement Ben White slotted straight into a pattern of hard counter-rucking and insistent attempts to rein in Leinster's illustrious runners. When Rob Kearney ran straight into Dean Mumm it gave Exeter a penalty and a line-out on the Leinster 22-metre line secured by Mumm and turned into a try by a Chiefs drive finished by the thrower, Neil Clark.
With Gareth Steenson's conversion the scores were level, and by half-time Exeter were in front. A series of scrums on the Exeter goalline ended with snazzy, sharp passing by Brian O'Driscoll and Sexton putting Kearney into the right-hand corner. Exeter patiently but forcefully built phases in reply and despite appearing to waste a hard-earned position as Steenson, with an advantage, cross-kicked to no one, they wrung a penalty try out of the subsequent line-out drive. Steenson converted and added a penalty – eschewing the touch-finder.
They know what they are doing here, even if finishing in the top two has proved beyond them in their debut Heineken Cup season.
Not wanting to give theirs up yet, Leinster had their bonus inside seven minutes of the second half. O'Driscoll was one of the providers, finishing with a jink his 32nd try in 82 Heineken Cup appearances since a debut in 1999. The great centre has played just nine times this season, labouring with a dodgy ankle – and hobbling on the other one after the bonus-point win over Scarlets last week – but he was jack-knifing as of old wherever possible. Jamie Heaslip, the No 8 who will captain Ireland in the Six Nations Championship while O'Driscoll, perhaps, gets on with quietly honing his fitness and his Lions candidacy, sauntered over from a scrum and Leinster, with two Sexton conversions, led 26-17.
Leinster did not waver from their fast offloading style and the scrum more than did its bit in support. Exeter fed off the crowd's lust for the eminent scalp, and vice versa.
Eoin Reddan, one of 16 Leinster players in the Ireland squad meeting in Co Kildare today went off very groggily. Another, Cian Healy, looked none too clever either when replaced by Heinke van der Merwe. Both were in accidental collisions: Reddan's with his own flanker Kevin McLaughlin and the ground as he fell. Steenson's second penalty with 11 minutes left had Sandy Park renewed with hope until a harsh blocking call, followed by White's yellow card at a ruck and Sexton's penalty, completed Leinster's side of the qualifying bargain. "We went out with a mission to get a bonus point," said Heaslip, "and hopefully we did enough. Exeter really stuck it to us. It's out of our hands. There's nothing more we can do now."
Exeter Chiefs 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), R Baxter, J Scaysbrook.
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), J Heaslip, S O'Brien.
Referee R Poite (France).
Tries: Clark, penalty try
Cons: Steenson 2
Pens: Steenson 2
Tries: D’Arcy, Kearney, O’Driscoll, Heaslip
Cons: Sexton 3