CONSIDERING the permutations that arose from Friday’s games, both the Exiles and Leinster knew exactly what they had to do coming into Saturday night’s much-anticipated fixture.
Because of what was at stake, with Leinster needing a result to secure a home draw in the last eight, the game itself suffered as a spectacle.
Leinster went for the containment approach and were successful for large parts of the game, while it was a stalemate for good chunks of the first period.
Leinster began to put the squeeze on the home side as half-time drew near. Isa Nacewa crossed over for the first try of the match. Things were looking good.
As the game wore on, Leinster’s failure to put the home side away, partly due to their tactics, meant that Irish were able to hang in until the end.
Despite Chris Malone’s failed penalty opportunities Irish were always going to have their shot at taking the spoils. Dominated at the breakdown and in many facets of play for much of the game, the Exiles hung in there until they finally broke the Leinster defence, where, almost unbelievably, Malone missed from in front of the sticks.
At 8-8 I knew it was going to go down to the wire. It is always easy to make judgements after the fact but, regardless of what scenarios any game may present, moving away from the sort of game that comes naturally to a team almost inevitably has its consequences.
It is understandable to a degree why Leinster went to Twickenham with a certain gameplan in mind. Defensively they were excellent for the most part but, leaving aside some intricate interplay from the back division, they rarely threatened the Exiles’ whitewash.
That is very rare for any Leinster team. The approach they undertook is extremely hard to maintain over an 80-minute period. Despite looking as comfortably on top on the pitch as Leinster did, it did not translate on to the scoreboard. In that sense I felt that a good side like London Irish, if they hung in there long enough, were always going to get their chance.
At the end of the day nobody could have predicted the bizarre outcome that was witnessed. Malone went from villain to hero and back again with a perfect Sexton cameo in between.
Pulling the point out of the jaws of defeat demonstrated the hallmark of champions. The ability to bounce back against all the odds and snatch the draw made all the difference in the world.
Instead of a potentially tricky away fixture in France, we will host Clermont-Auvergne at the RDS. Cheika and his men had to sweat all the way, but they have got the home quarter-final that they wanted. I have been impressed by some of the sides who have not made the final eight – the likes of London Irish and Ulster.
The importance of having a top line kicker in this competition cannot be underestimated; that was underlined in the games seen over the weekend.
However, having seen some of the games with some of the aforementioned involved, I believe that the future is very bright for the competition as a whole.
While the French will always challenge, I expect that some of the competition’s lesser lights will offer a bigger challenge to the more established sides in the coming years.
The likes of Ulster are a young team on the up, likewise Northampton, who have made the last eight and may yet have a say in this year’s competition.
From my own perspective I am relieved Leinster and Munster have avoided each other in a potential semi-final draw. This could set up a mouthwatering showdown in Paris on May 22. Even allowing for the fact that it will be played on foreign soil, a final with our two best sides could even surpass the highs of Croker last year.
If things are to turn out that way, no doubt there will may ups and downs in the meantime.