Leinster blast Leicester in Champions Cup masterclass | Champions Cup
The first three letters of the name of the winning team were never in doubt and, from the start, the other five either. Leicester are supposed to be the toughest beasts the English Premiership has to offer, but here they’ve been made to look relatively toothless, far behind in most areas for opponents who look unlikely to conquer Europe. for a fifth time later this month.
On this evidence, it will take something more special to refuse the Irish province, in particular with its semi-final against Toulouse which will take place at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. However, wherever they play, they currently seem to have all the answers needed, especially against English opposition. Leinster have now won their last eight away games in England in this competition and appear to be continuing to improve.
After trotting through the tunnel at half-time, already trailing by 20 points, there was never any realistic danger of the Tigers burning brightly on a clear, sunny evening in the East Midlands. The pitch was not full but the noise was spectacular everywhere, to the point where it looked like a test match in all but name. Leinster certainly play like an international team and would give England a run for their money home or away.
It was then a question of whether the Tigers could go from the top of the Premiership to another level. Their pre-match game plan was quite simple: physically step into the shoes of the Irish and shake the nerves of the favourites. Leinster, however, were ahead within three minutes thanks to an offside penalty from Johnny Sexton and much of the first quarter was rhapsody in midnight blue.
Sure, Leicester have power but their opponents have outplayed them with their collective pace and quick thinking. Everyone knew the Tigers would kick a lot, but Leinster’s response was to kick from deep so quickly that the hosts, at times, could barely put a glove on them. Man of the match Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe and Hugo Keenan all excellent kept the pace audaciously high and no team in the tournament can match the visitors’ strike rate in the opposing 22.
The result was two Leinster tries in seven decisive minutes. First, the equally impressive Josh van der Flier ran through Harry Potter’s tackle to stretch and score before Ireland international team-mate Robbie Henshaw, also involved in the move earlier, took an equally straight to the five meter line. A pair of conversions from Sexton made it 17-0 and left the hosts in serious catching up game.
It wasn’t so much that Leicester were subdued, but rather that Leinster were looking to every square inch for a collection of champions. Their knockout defeats over the past two seasons to Saracens and La Rochelle clearly stung but there was more to this class demolition than a willingness to settle some old scores. Just look at what they are: a well-trained, talented and dynamic team who believe rugby is a 15-a-side game and not just a grindathon.
Leicester are used to defending against teams that methodically recycle and give them half a chance. Leinster’s ruck speed was at least a second quicker than is common in the Premiership and they were sharper in every other way too. If Van der Flier isn’t this season’s player in the UK and Ireland, it’s only because Gibson-Park put him forward; both are testament to the Leinster management’s ability to improve the players under their tutelage.
Another penalty from Sexton extended his side’s lead even further at half-time, leaving Leicester demanding an oval-shaped miracle.
To their credit, they staged a comeback of sorts, George Ford putting Chris Ashton in the left corner before scoring the conversion, but Leinster can also defend. Ross Byrne, in place of Sexton, netted an easy 66th-minute penalty to push his side more than two points clear and, despite a late consolation try from Nic Dolly, there was to be no stumbling at Manchester City.
As well as putting Leicester’s high domestic status into perspective, it was also another feather in the cap of Leinster head coach Stuart Lancaster, who played a leading role in the continued rise of the Irish team. A penny for the thoughts of England head coach Eddie Jones, always on the lookout for players who can make a difference to the fortunes of the national team. Like everyone connected with English rugby, he will have returned home deep in thought. The Irish are currently well ahead and show no signs of slowing down.