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When the Pro12 leaders and Premiership leaders clash one expects entertainment of the highest order, and Leinster and Wasps delivered at the Aviva Stadium.
The Irish side came through the Champions Cup quarter-final tie 32-17 against their London opponents, in a game that ebbed and flowed and thrilled from the get-go.
Leinster raced into a first-half lead with tries from Isa Nacewa, Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw leaving Wasps in total disarray as they were blitzed by Leinster up front and found themselves unable to cope with Leo Cullen’s side’s creativity in the backline.
Johnny Sexton added a penalty after the break, to add to five kicked points in the first half, to leave Leinser 25-3 ahead. However, in that third quarter the Irish lost their focus as they let Wasps back into the tie. Two fantastic solo tries from Christian Wade and Jimmy Gopperth, embellished by Gopperth place kicking, reduced the deficit to eight points.
But just when it looked as though Leinster might be about to blow a position of complete domination, they kickstarted themselves to pin Wasps back into their own 22 for extended periods, which was finally rewarded with Fergus McFadden crossing for the game-clinching try, to ensure Leinster’s place in the last four against the winner of tomorrow’s clash between Clermont and Toulon.
Billed as a clash of Test match-standard in club colours, the first of the weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-finals began in blistering fashion at the sun and rain splattered Aviva Stadium, with Leinster’s ball-in-hand attack winning them a penalty at the breakdown, which Sexton slotted to give the Irish province an early lead.
It was an utterly dominant opening quarter from Cullen’s side as Wasps failed to gain a foothold. A second score came courtesy of some sublime play from two of Leinster’s young guns; first Dan Leavy made yardage with a line break in the centre, before fullback Joey Carbery joined the line, and spun wide to Nacewa to turn on the afterburners and cross in the corner.
Sean O’Brien got in a huge gallop through midfield as he put in a very obvious statement of intent for his inclusion in Warren Gatland’s Lions back row for his carrying power, with the Wasps boys scrambling back to claw down the Tullow Tank on the 22.
Having been stuck in reverse, Wasps should have been right back in the tie just before the half hour. Kurtley Beale scythed Leinster open down the middle before feeding Willie Le Roux to finish off the move, only for the experienced Springbok to try a glamorous and unnecessary diving touchdown, during which he managed to let the ball slip from his grasp, with the TMO deciding that control had been lost leading to no try being awarded. It was a huge let off for Leinster, and summed up Wasps’ ineptitude up until this juncture of the tie.
The Premiership leaders did get off the mark though, 32 minutes in, as another Lions hopeful, Tadhg Furlong, was pinged for an off-the-ball tackle, leaving former Leinster playmaker, and now Wasps No 12, Gopperth, to slot over from 42m out with a thumping boot of the pigskin.
Having worked so hard to claw their way onto the scoreboard, Wasps immediately coughed up another score. Carbery made it with a break up the middle before feeding to McFadden on the wing, before Carbery received again, taking it hard to the line and feeding Conan to finish off the move. Sexton slotted over the extra two.
Wasps were hanging on for dear life as half-time approached and nearly got to half-time without conceding another score, but they didn’t. Off a maul Leinster used Furlong and O’Brien as a first carriers, before using Sexton to inject pace to the 22, with Henshaw steaming over from close range. A Sexton conversion made it 22-3 at the break and Wasps in dire trouble.
The Londoners badly needed the first score after the break and in the search to get it Sexton was on the other end of some – at this stage – standard late tackles, with Kearnan Myall the man responsible. But Sexton, despite needing some attention from the team doctor to his right shoulder, was able to continue. And the St Mary’s clubman was on the scoresheet again as he slotted a kick on goal from 28m out to all but bury Wasps. Head coach David Young made four changes immediately after, including the introduction of former Leinster prop Marty Moore, as he looked for a dramatic change from his side in the final 30 minutes of the tie in Dublin 4.
From something out of nothing, Wasps got the lifeline they had been searching for. A loose clearance kick from Carbery was soaked up by Wasps, who moved out wide to Wade on the right flank. The lightning quick winger then used a chip and chase to take him past Nacewa and burn his way into the end-goal area to dot down. Gopperth added the conversion from wide right to bring Wasps to double scores and 15 down with the final quarter approaching.
Leinster had coasted in the third quarter, and they were made to pay for it, as Gopperth punished them. Picking up the ball on the attacking 22, the Kiwi jinked out of the first tackle, before injecting pace to see him past two more, and then bump off a poor effort at a tackle from Carbery on the line to touch down. He converted himself to leave a game that looked dead and buried around the half-time mark, right in the balance with 20 left on the clock.
It jerked Leinster back into life as Garry Ringrose made a Brian O’Driscoll-like break, past six defenders, to reach the 22, before Beale stopped him short of the line with a fine cover tackle. The pressure continued with Sexton launching a cross-field kick for Nacewa to chase, with Wade doing ever so well in the air to claim the mark.
The pressure was building and the breakthrough came.
Repeated phases saw Leinster draw themselves into the Wasps 22, where Jamison Gibson-Park released Devin Toner to bash directly to within two metres of the line, and with the Wasps defence stretched to breaking point, McFadden picked and went to dive over the whitewash. Sexton added two more to give Leinster a 15-point cushion entering the final five minutes.
It looked insurmountable - and proved to be - as Wasps again were their own worst enemies; they launched another attack and committed their 11th handling error to hand possession and territory back to Leinster to wind down the clock as they begin to turn their attentions to the semi-final battle ahead.
Man of the match: Joey Carbery.