Sexton drops Exiles in it to let Saints in back door

London Irish 11 Leinster 11: Last-gasp Leinster send home side out as Northampton reap rewards
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A disastrously unprecedented performance by England's clubs in the Heineken Cup has left Northampton alone in carrying the flag of St George into the quarter-finals, and as the lowest-ranked seeds at that. For the first time in 13 seasons of English participation in this competition the Premiership's teams have failed to supply at least two representatives in the last eight.

Leinster, the holders, sauntered a little unsteadily out of Twickenham having done just enough to win Pool Six and earn a home draw. London Irish? In the few seconds it took their fly-half, Chris Malone, to miss with two long-range drop-goal attempts in a frantic final play they went from a thinking they might win and so steal the second-best runners-up spot from Northampton to finishing third in the group and denied even the consolation of dropping into the Amlin Challenge Cup. It was all breathless stuff, if – as per usual in the Heineken – that was mostly down to the infernally complicated qualifying format.

Malone had kicked some beautiful touch-finders as Irish exploited their peerless line-out as much as possible. But the Australian-born fly-half also missed two penalties, a conversion of his own try and three drops, as well as refusing another drop when it was on. "It's a big missed opportunity," he said. "I pushed a couple, pulled a couple and was all over the shop, really. You're either the hero or the villain, playing at No 10."

Leinster's Jonny Sexton would say "amen" to that. It was his drop-goal in the 79th minute which tied the scores up, when Malone's penalty for Leinster's Sean O'Brien diving over a ruck had just put Irish 11-8 up. The "home" side failed heinously to gather in the restart and a slightly ragged swipe of Sexton's instep did the rest. Even then, Malone had two goes at a drop from close to halfway, one of them – amazingly – after Leinster's Rob Kearney had missed touch. "It was a little bit of a poor drop," said Sexton, who is neck and neck with Ronan O'Gara to be Ireland's starter in the Six Nations. "But we'll take the draw."

There would have been many divided – or perhaps multiplied – loyalties among the 37,000 crowd relocated to Twickenham by dint of London Irish's landlords, Reading, being involved in the FA Cup. Anyone of an English persuasion must be asking questions of the Premiership's quality now, and whether the season-long grind equips players with the skills and guts for one-off occasions. Maybe the talent is spread too thinly. The likes of Leicester are bound to point to injuries early in the season and the disparity of the English salary cap with that in France, who have provided four quarter-finalists, joined by Munster (likely to be hosting Northampton) and Wales's Ospreys.

The Leinster back line in its pomp is unmatched anywhere in Europe except Toulouse and possibly Clermont Auvergne on a good day. London Irish aren't too dusty, either – Topsy Ojo and friends ran daringly, with the odd horror pass thrown in; Leinster butchered a couple of tries with forward passes too. The muscular menace of Irish's Pacific Islander centres, Elvis Seveali'i and Seilala Mapusua, had a part in their only try, after 65 minutes, and they were bested overall by Brian O'Driscoll, 31 last Thursday, and Gordon D'Arcy.

Leinster went 3-0 up with a penalty by Sexton, who came through a morale-testing battering in the early stages. Malone's first poor miss from the 22 came after 13 minutes; not so sweet from the man known as "Molly" to his mates, though he soon levelled at 3-3 from the 10-metre line. But Leinster moved ahead when a pig's ear of an Irish scrum in the 38th minute allowed the Lions No 8 Jamie Heaslip to drive to the line and Isa Nacewa nipped into a gap at the left corner.

In the other pool match, Scarlets were in the process of securing second place with a win in Brive, who fielded England's putative inside-centre, Riki Flutey. Here it was 8-8 when Malone, though initially in two minds, skipped past Cian Healey for a try after 65 minutes, from one of several solid line-out takes by Nick Kennedy. But the conversion hit a post and before long Irish's hopes of further progress had hit the buffers.

London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; C Malone, P Hodgson (P Richards, 32-40); C Dermody (D Murphy, 70), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 58), N Kennedy, B Casey (capt), R Thorpe, C Hala'ufia, S Armitage (K Roche, 58).

Leinster R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, B Jackman (J Fogarty, 30), CJ van der Linde (M Ross, 53), L Cullen (capt; M O'Kelly, 60), N Hines, K McLaughlin (S Wright, 50-57), J Heaslip, S Jennings (S O'Brien, 57).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).