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Saturday 20 January 2018

McGrath shows he is ready to make step up

Luke McGrath on the way to scoring a try during the Champions Cup match against Exeter at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile
Luke McGrath on the way to scoring a try during the Champions Cup match against Exeter at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile

In an exciting match notable for its brutal collisions, Leinster bounced back admirably from being 17-3 down to eventually defeat Exeter Chiefs 22-17 and leave the Dublin-based side sitting pretty at the top of their European Champions Cup pool.

Despite this game being very much in the balance until the 65th minute, when Leinster's excellent scrum half Luke McGrath scored the game-breaking try, Leinster coach Leo Cullen will be delighted with his team's calm and clinical fightback, leaving Leinster with pool qualification firmly in their own hands.

Things could not have started any worse for the home side when talismanic out-half Johnny Sexton lasted just a couple of minutes before a head clash took its toll.

Sexton, already heavily strapped, left the field and it was a difficult transition for Leinster. Replacement Ross Byrne was rushed onto the field of play, never an easy thing to do. Physically and mentally it takes a while to get up to speed.

Byrne did not have that luxury and minutes later he too had to leave the field for an head injury assessment. Luckily for Leinster, the replacement passed the test and was deemed fit enough to return and steady Leinster's ship.

Exeter took full advantage of Leinster's early disruption in organisation and defence when the abrasive Sam Skinner bludgeoned over for the opening try.

Exeter were well worth their early lead, carrying with potency and finding holes in Leinster's fringe defence.

But despite their possession, Exeter could not make many of their opportunities count when they had Leinster in serious trouble. The visitors had multiple overlaps during this phase, but too often their passes went behind the player rather than in front.

scrambled

In fairness, Leinster scrambled well. For the first 20 minutes they were hanging in, compounded by a lack of quality ball and, worse, a lack of discipline that saw them concede two yellow cards in the first half, one to prop Cian Healy and then another to Australian Scott Farley for collapsing the maul.

At 17-3 down against last year's Premiership Champions, it looked a long way back for Leinster. But gradually, thanks to inspirational captain Isa Nacewa, Leinster clawed their way back as Exeter failed to take advantage of numerical superiority. A penalty here and there, including one right on halftime, gave Leinster a real chance in the second spell.

The home side came out after the break a different team as they blew Exeter away with ball in hand, Leinster maintained possession, built the phases and dominated in a lot of areas they had been struggling in.

Some astute tactical changes by Cullen saw one of the most influential players onto the park in flanker Dan Leavy. Leavy made an immediate impact, turning Exeter's ball over, winning back the collisions and offloading expertly for McGrath's 65th-minute try.

Leinster's defensive line speed was improving all the time, as was their organisation and patience, and despite Exeter throwing everything at them in the last 10 minutes Leinster looked comfortable.

The experience of playing so many years in Europe held them in good stead. Lesser teams may have changed the way they were playing, panicked and it would have cost them. Leinster just always stayed cool.

Whatever Cullen said at halftime, plus the tactical changes he made in the second half , orked well. A few months ago national coach Joe Schmidt must have worried about the possible long-term replacement for world-class scrumhalf Conor Murray, should he be be injured, but in the last few weeks Luke McGrath has emerged as a player that is growing in statue with every match.

As against Exeter last week, McGrath continued his upward trajectory, his sniping runs and organisation of Leinster's forwards extremely positive.

Leinster were not perfect. Some of their option-taking and kicking was hard to fathom and there were to many holes in their first-half defence. But in general, results like this please a coach the most. Why? Because it shows where the group is mentally.

Down 17-3 and a lot of teams would have gone into their shell after conceding so many early points and yellow cards, but Leinster had the self-belief to regroup.

They talked at halftime and put the early loss of their backline leader Sexton behind them and decided they could win this game.

To come from so far behind against a quality team determined to stay in Europe and still win shows to me that this is a side confident in their own abilities and with real fight and team spirit as well - vital ingredients for potential European Champions.

Leinster players and coaches will enjoy some much deserved festivities over the weekend, then it's back to run off the Christmas pudding in the big clash against Munster.

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