IT IS ALWAYS a grind in Exeter, trench warfare transferred from the Somme to Sandy Park. Every inch of territory is streaked with sweat, every point gained the equivalent of a dozen collected from a Friday night bashing over a Dragons or a Zebre.
Leo Cullen could do with a win there. He wouldn’t mind a few tries, wouldn’t say no to a dazzling display of back play, either. But you get the sense he won’t be greedy, jokily referring to ‘the 9-6 classic’ when these teams first met nearly a decade ago, at a time when Leinster were European champions and Exeter were unknown, unloved and unheralded.
Now they’re the defending Champions Cup winners and favourites for tonight’s quarter-final (kick-off 5.15pm, BT Sport). While there won’t be any fans inside their purpose-built, likeable little stadium, the peculiarities of the place will suit these Chiefs, from the unusually lengthy end-goal areas through to the way the wind blows. Local knowledge counts when you are kicking to touch or at goal. It could haunt Johnny Sexton’s dreams tonight.
With Munster hopes buried and both Ulster’s and Connacht’s left trailing in the dust, it is left to Leinster to not just carry the hopes of a nation but an entire league in this one. If they lose then for a second year in a row, the Pro14 won’t have a representative in the last four.
There’s a strong chance that will be the case. Since they last lifted this trophy, way back on that wet Saturday evening in May 2018, Leinster have won 65 of their 76 matches, yet you’d sense they’d swap every one of those – even the record breaking six-in-a-row against Munster – for a win tonight.
“This means so much to the group now,” said Cullen yesterday. “They want to be successful, want to achieve on the biggest stage and this is the biggest stage for club rugby in the Northern Hemisphere. Hopefully we will still be in the draw after the weekend but it will be a great test.”
Cullen with the prize he really wants. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
The problem for Cullen and Leinster over the last three years is that they’ve been unprepared for Europe’s biggest tests by virtue of the fact the Pro14 has ceased to challenge them in the way it used to. Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scarlets have gone backwards while we’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for Cardiff Blues to come forwards.
All of this has left Leinster strolling to four successive titles, yet in the midst of this run, when they turned their attentions to Europe, Saracens – both in the 2019 Champions Cup final and again in last year’s quarter-final – posed questions they couldn’t answer.
The fear is that you can insert Exeter’s name into the space Sarries left behind. From the word go, Rob Baxter has eked every ounce of ability from his team. In his 12 years in the director of rugby role, there has been a promotion to the Premiership, five trips to the Premiership final, two English titles plus a European Champions Cup.
Having a decent maul and a pick-and-go strategy are not the only stories that come out of Devon.
Cullen knows this and is also acutely aware that the best way to stop such a strategic, driven team is to deny them entry to the red zone. Breakdown discipline in between each 22, as well as a rock solid scrum, could determine whether it’s a season-defining win or loss for the visitors.
“Ah yeah,” Cullen said, “as the last thing you want to do is to play yourself into trouble because they are so well drilled in that area of the field (the opposition 22) that they can set up shop there for quite a period of time. They’re so systematic, Exeter, we’ll be trying to disrupt that.”
“Well, when they (Exeter) beat Lyon last weekend, Lyon gave away a lot of penalties around the scrum in particular which gave Exeter a lot of access into the 22 and, once they get there, they can be difficult to disrupt. That’s our challenge, to come up with a better plan than lots of other teams have had against them.”
Stuart Hogg celebrates the win over Lyon. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO
It sounds simple. Complicating things is that the 2021 version of Exeter has a lot more variety than the model Leinster last encountered in December 2017. Henry Slade, the England centre, has matured for a start; Stuart Hogg has arrived from Glasgow and even if wing Jack Nowell remains a considerable loss, Olly Woodburn and Tom O’Flaherty have plenty of gas.
You only have to refresh your Twitter feed to get an idea of how good they looked last week against Lyon – putting 47 points on a team who have defeated Toulouse, Toulon and La Rochelle this year is a statement. No one else has come close to that kind of tally against Lyon yet this is the sort of thing Exeter can do to teams. Leicester were also stung for 47 points three weeks ago; Bath shipped 40 against them, Glasgow 42.
Along the way, there have also been stutters. With success comes reward. Finally, after feeling overlooked internationally, their players are getting capped, not just by England, but also by Scotland and Wales. The downside for Baxter is he has been unable to maintain their usual consistency. Wasps hammered them earlier in the season; Gloucester, Bristol, Sale and Northampton have also seen them off, the Bears and Saints at Sandy Park.
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Two weeks ago, you’d have had plenty of conviction in your belief that Leinster would do the same. But now? There are doubts, not just because Garry Ringrose’s creative spark will be missed; but also because they could do with Dan Leavy and James Ryan getting their paws on dirty ball and checking Sam Simmonds’ threat.
As it is, Cullen has still carted a formidable team across the pond. Aside from the red carpet guys, the often overlooked Rhys Ruddock and Luke McGrath have been excellent this season; James Lowe is back and has apparently ben sharp in training; greybeards Scott Fardy and Devin Toner are renowned set-piece spoilers, Johnny Sexton showed against England he can still shine on the biggest days.
In other words, you can make a case for either side without worrying too much about looking stupid. No one wants a fence-sitter, though. It’s always more fun when your author nails his colours to the mast at 7am and then looks a complete eejit by 7pm.
So, for better or worse, we’re going for a Leinster win by a couple of points, on the basis their starting front-row, and trio of replacements, are capable of winning that particular battle, while the understated gifts of Robbie Henshaw and Hugo Keenan could yield even bigger gains. In trench warfare, every inch counts. Henshaw and Keenan give you yards. They’ll also give Cullen the win he desires most.