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Leinster lead the way as Irish provinces send out a warning

By Tony Ward

In raw terms it reads Ireland 3 England 0 and while no one but no one on this side of the Irish Sea will lose the run of themselves, this represented a massive European weekend and statement for Irish rugby.

Munster paved the way in Limerick on Saturday, while at the Stoop Ulster showed that when push comes to shove there is substance and clout beyond some potentially brilliant backs.

By any stretch, what Munster and Ulster achieved when overcoming Leicester and Harlequins respectively was massive but the biggest statement of all was saved for last when Leinster went to Sandy Park and with patience and perseverance dismantled the reigning English champions on their own patch, something no other side had achieved since Bordeaux a year ago.

We all know what Leinster can do off the front foot by way of a star-studded backline but this time the nature of the opposition allied to the conditions and the occasion dictated a more conservative approach.

The final stats showed something in the region of 222 tackles made by the Chiefs to 94 by Leinster - a statistic that adequately reflects the domination of possession by the away team in the home of the hitherto unbeaten Premiership champs.

To be fair, when they moved it wide on limited opportunity they did look dangerous while their defensive work against wave after wave of Leinster phase attack was truly heroic.

What made this win particularly noteworthy for me and I would like to think for this entire Leinster squad going forward was that despite crossing the Exeter line twice (courtesy of Luke McGrath and Devin Toner) but each being disallowed in addition to a wayward Johnny Sexton penalty - all in the opening quarter - never did they panic.

I can't believe I am saying this but the box kicking by both sides was clever and appropriate to the occasion and opposition. Rob Baxter had clearly prepared his wide players for the bombardment and for the best part of an hour they dealt with it efficiently.

The two tries that were disallowed might on another day have been given such were the minuscule margins involved. I'm not sure (and neither was Romain Poite) that Sexton's boot hit the touchline in the build-up to the outstanding McGrath's disallowed try or indeed that Toner couldn't have got the ball onto terra firma beyond the whitewash.

Against that, a case might have been made for Jack Nowell being awarded a penalty try and Sean Cronin shipping a different colour card in the process. On this occasion these things evened themselves out by way of the right result.

There wasn't a weak Leinster performance. This was a win based entirely on the collective. All 23 took part and all 23 delivered with the likes of Jordan Larmour and James Ryan building up more valuable experience.

And when the going got tough, the tough truly did get going with Tadgh Furlong, Toner, Scott Fardy, Sean O'Brien and both Jacks - Conan and McGrath - producing mighty shifts, particularly in that final quarter. Space was at a premium with the tactical kicking and chasing at times a matter of who blinks first. Scrum half McGrath had another awesome outing while both centres and all three in the last line had their moments, but with McFadden in particular outstanding.

As for Isa Nacewa? We all know this Kiwi oozes courage but not just of the physical variety. The assertive manner in which he took the ball when Sexton was laid low to land that vital penalty kick when the Chiefs were edging back represented true leadership.

Of course no Champions Cup was won in Sandy Park but what Leinster achieved in terms of self-belief as well as sending out a measured warning to the rest of watching Europe was massive.

Munster the previous night and Ulster in Twickenham earlier in the day set the standard. In their differing ways they were mighty wins, not least for the PRO14 and for the Irish provinces over the cream of the English Premiership. It makes for another fascinating weekend with the reverse fixtures coming up but more than that is the possibility that all three Irish sides could still be in the shake-up come April.

It is six seasons now since the Champions Cup last came our way courtesy of Leinster in 2012. Toulon and Saracens have dominated since and both are top of their respective pools again this time around. But there was so much about this performance that smacked of a Leinster team on a mission.

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