Exeter Chiefs' debut campaign in Heineken Cup ends in close defeat to classy Leinster
Exeter Chiefs' first-ever Heineken Cup campaign is over, but they are undoubtedly becoming better side then when it started.
The scoreboard may not have validated such a claim in recent weeks, but Chiefs' performance during a 29-20 defeat to Leinster at the weekend showed how far they have come.
Leinster's exit at the group stages this season should not diminish Chiefs' achievements in pushing them so close.
The defending champions came to Devon still motivated by reaching the latter stages of the competition they have won in three out of the last four seasons.
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They needed to come to Sandy Park and win with at least four tries and that made them dangerous opponents, more so than when Chiefs fell 9-6 in Dublin in October.
Rob Baxter's men have learned that any drop-off in intensity or accuracy will be punished in European rugby's top club competition – and striking that balance between the two will be the challenge for them, as they seek to qualify for the Heineken Cup again next season.
In Baxter, they have a pragmatic and shrewd tactician whose players willingly follow his instructions with great discipline.
Pre-knowledge of Leinster's need for tries gave him an opportunity this weekend and his game-plan was intelligently designed around exploiting the potential weaknesses such a scenario presents.
Of course, there is still work to do, if Chiefs are to turn all of their admirable displays into victories against the strongest opponents.
A promising high-pressure start from them was quickly converted by Leinster into a try-scoring opportunity for the visitors, who took the lead with their opening try after just three minutes.
Gordon D'Arcy powered through to the try line as Chiefs' defensive line narrowed, allowing a gap to appear to the right of the posts. Jonny Sexton added the conversion.
However, Chiefs' battles with Clermont Auvergne and Scarlets in Pool Five have taught them moments like this have to be absorbed – there can be no time for self-pity in the Heineken Cup.
Baxter's mantra of 'bouncing through' the disappointments in games could be seen right away as his side's industry and endeavour continued.
Wing Matt Jess chased back and tidied up a chip over his own defence and scrum-half Kevin Barrett later made an excellent break into the Leinster 22.
Unfortunately, a lapse in accuracy let them down in key moments. Two knock-ons in quick succession stalled their progress and the visitors were able to regroup.
Every time Leinster came forward they looked threatening, gaining territory with almost every ball carry.
It was a situation hindered further by the loss of Chiefs' England international Tom Johnson in the 15th minute.
Indeed, if replacement Ben White had not been so capable, there was a real danger this side's challenge could have quickly fallen apart.
They certainly did nothing of the sort, instead engineering a try from a line-out move, with hooker Neil Clark rummaging through for a score converted by fly-half Gareth Steenson.
Leinster's class soon told again, however. A rapid series of accurate short passes worked through Brian O'Driscoll and Sexton to full-back Rob Kearney saw the latter score near the right touchline. Sexton failed to add the conversion.
It took some Chiefs ingenuity to get them back in contention. Steenson booted a kickable penalty into the right corner and, after a successful line, a 15-man maul forced Leinster into conceding a penalty try.
Steenson added the easy extras and suddenly the European champions were rattled.
Scrums were suddenly going Chiefs' way and Leinster line-outs were being overthrown – one even fell straight into the path of the onrushing Ian Whitten and the centre drew a penalty which Steenson kicked towards goal to create a five-point cushion just before the half-time break.
The half-time team talk from Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt ensured his side returned for the second half with renewed intensity.
They scored their third try within four minutes of the restart when a perfectly executed offload from lock Leo Cullen set up O'Driscoll for a try converted by Sexton.
The bonus-point fourth try came soon after when No.8 Jamie Heaslip crashed over off the back of a scrum – Sexton again adding the conversion.
Opportunities for Chiefs were less frequent and a second attempt at a huge maul failed to yield another score.
The home side's work-rate did offer Steenson a kick for goal to bring them back within a converted score. That progress was undone when Sexton kicked three points for his side to re-establish their nine-point advantage later on.
It was a little tough on Chiefs, but their experiences in the Heineken Cup will surely prove invaluable.