Killian Woods, Twickenham
Sitting top of pool six with 20 points and virtually through to the knockout round of the Heineken Cup, Leinster came to London hoping to ensure a home quarter final by beating London Irish. With Twickenham the stage for the showdown between these two attacking sides, many mouths were watering at the prospect of the two glamour teams going head to head.
Last weeks game against Llanelli Scarlets had huge repercussions on the Exiles chances of qualifying for the Heineken Cup knockout stage. Failing to claim even a losing bonus point meant that London Irish had to score four tries, while also preventing Leinster grabbing a losing bonus point, if they were to stand any chance of overtaking last years champions.
Only if London Irish carried this task to precision would they have been able overtake Leinster at the summit of pool six due to their head to head record. This necessity for London Irish to gain a bonus point augmented the pressure on the home side and allowed Leinster to get on with their job at hand.
Unlike their long distant cousins, a spate of results earlier on in the day ensured that Leinster had, at worst, a runners spot in their pool and passage through to the next round. Different to previous Leinster sides, who would proverbially roll over in such situations, this was considered as a perfect opportunity for Leinster to push on and finally attain their first knockout round European Cup match at the RDS. Similarly though, these results meant that London Irish would be able to qualify should they win the match.
The game started in a cautious manner with errors in the line-outs and handling errors for both teams disrupting the flow of the game. However, the fans didn’t allow the events on the pitch subdue their mood. Like last years venture to Twickenham, Leinster’s fans turned up in great numbers and made a creditable contribution to the atmosphere created by the 37,323 crowd, which packed out the lower tiers of Twickenham stadium.
After making key changes to his front row following the frailties in the scrum last week against Brive, Leinster coach Michael Cheika was rewarded for his decision as Leinster won a penalty from a scrum 40 metres from goal. Cullen opted to kick at goal and Sexton punished the home side for their mistake by slotting over the penalty from a long distance.
Bernard Jackman’s exit from the field due to injury coincided with the London Irish having a sustained period of pressure after an exciting break from their winger Topsy Ojo gave them a good platform to attack Leinster. Eventually London Irish pressure told and Malone cooly kicked over their first points of the match to level the game after 35 minutes.
At the restart, Irish were caught napping and Leinster started to pile the pressure on their defence just just before half-time. London Irish’s careless defence was being forced into last ditch tackles and only Gordon D’Arcy’s forward pass five metres from the try-line prevented Isa Nacewa from scoring a certain try.
From a the ensuing scrum, London Irish failed to deal with Leinster’s sustained pressure yet again and just before half-time Eoin Reddan supplied Nacewa the ball on the blindside to score a try after 38 minutes. Unfortunately Nacewa was forced to shadow the touchline in the run in to his try, giving Sexton a difficult conversion to complete, which hit the post.
The second half started with a degree of optimism, fans hoping that one of these two spectacular sides would turn on the fireworks and run away with this game. An ensuing ten minutes saw a lackadaisical approach from both teams as both kicked away good possession to gain tactical ground.
After this spell of the game, London Irish began to slowly but surely get on top of their visitors and even though both Delon Armitage and Topsy Ojo were showing nerves under the high ball, they were counter attacking very well in open play. The Exiles pressure eventually told in the 66th minute as fly-half Chris Malone darted over the try line to level the scores. After receiving the ball on the right, Malone opted not to use his fellow backs and he cut inside the first defender, doing well to ground the ball under huge pressure. His conversion also hit the post, keeping the scores level and made for a tense finale.
In the penultimate ten minutes, both teams went for the final score to end the match. Malone looked to have given London Irish the win after putting his past missed attempts behind him, to slot over a penalty in the 77th minute. Though, yet again from the restart, London Irish were negligent and gave possession back to Leinster in their own half. Sexton cast patience to one side and instinctively saw an opportunity to have a drop goal attempt.
As the Exiles fans still celebrated Malone’s penalty which sent them into the knock out rounds of the Heineken Cup, Sexton’s attempt sailed over and penetrated the posts to level the game with a minute to go. Leinster saw out the game, but not without another dramatic moment which saw London Irish have two drop goal chances from far out.
Though the game was a memorable occasion, London Irish’s approach somewhat took away any potential for a showpiece element to the fixture. The Guinness Premiership side appeared to settle for a four point win from the start and decided to play cautious rugby which does not suit their style.
This decision left them in two different mindsets and replicated itself on the pitch as they could not hold their nerve in situations where their actions needed to be clinical. This lack of composure was typified by London Irish when they failed to claim any points from the period which Leinster prop Cian Healy spent in the sin bin and also in the penalties missed by Malone.