A tenacious fightback from 14 points down saw Leinster complete a Champions Cup double over Exeter Chiefs, with Luke McGrath’s 65th-minute try proving crucial in a 22-17 win at the Aviva Stadium.
Stung by last Sunday’s 18-8 defeat in Devon, the English champions had victory within their grasp as converted tries from Sam Skinner and Luke Cowan-Dickie stunned the Dublin crowd and carved open a 17-3 lead.
Leinster were rocked by the loss of Jonathan Sexton to a head injury and had Cian Healy and Scott Fardy both sin-binned, with the former very fortunate to avoid red for a forearm into Cowan-Dickie’s face at a ruck.
However, the home side regrouped and five penalties from captain Isa Nacewa — three before half-time — chipped away at the Chiefs’ advantage before replacement Dan Leavy broke and passed for scrum-half McGrath to run in the match-winning try.
Exeter were unable to get back into scoring range — a Skinner lineout infringement proving hugely frustrating — as the unbeaten Irish province ground out the result to stay in control of Pool 3 on 18 points, sitting five points clear of Montpellier. Exeter, who were the better side for much of this contest, are third on nine points.
The Chiefs silenced the home crowd with a stunning start, quickly edging into scoring range before lock Skinner spun out of a tackle to touch down. Skipper Gareth Steenson added the simple conversion for a 7-0 lead.
Leinster lost both Sexton and his replacement Ross Byrne to HIAs (Head Injury Assessment) in a bruising opening quarter, but Nacewa, who threatened from a chip and chase, briefly settled the hosts with a well-struck 11th-minute penalty.
Exeter were winning the 50-50 balls, with Olly Woodburn also impressing in the air and Jack Nowell fizzing in attack, although the visitors blew a gilt-edged opportunity with an overthrown lineout.
Healy’s foul play saw referee Pascal Gauzere produce his yellow card, and although Devin Toner thwarted Exeter with a lineout steal, a scrum penalty allowed Steenson to make it 10-3.
With Matt Kvesic growing in influence and the abrasive Exeter pack driving their side’s first half possession up to 75 per cent, Steenson stuck a penalty into the corner and a well-controlled drive ended with Cowan-Dickie burrowing over. Steenson converted and Fardy was binned for his attempted collapse.
Just when it seemed to be going from bad to worse for Leo Cullen’s men, Nacewa nailed a 42-metre penalty and then slung a late kick through the uprights, rewarding an encouraging break by Sean Cronin.
Exeter were the aggressors again on the resumption but it was Leinster who struck again through Nacewa’s 55th-minute penalty, following a couple of clever runs by Fergus McFadden and Garry Ringrose.
Suddenly, Leinster held the edge as McFadden went close to scoring in the right corner – the excellent Henry Slade and Woodburn held him up – but an offside call allowed Nacewa to coolly cut the gap to just two points.
With Leavy and James Ryan having the desired impact off the bench, and Ringrose carrying more of a threat in midfield, Leinster pounced for the decisive score when James Tracy combined with the fast-breaking Leavy whose flat delivery sent the supporting McGrath over by the posts.
Nacewa converted and Leinster stubbornly held on for victory.