Subscriber OnlyRugby

Gerry Thornley: Eight great Leinster wins in Europe that trump Exeter comeback

The Sandy Park win is a long way down any list of great victories in the competition

Whatever way you look at it, that was a special win, even by Leinster’s standards. To down the reigning European and English champions after falling 14-0 behind, already missing six internationals and then losing their onfield captain and conductor in chief, has to be ranked right up there.

But where exactly? In the immediate aftermath it was tempting to rank Saturday’s 34-22 win over Exeter in, say, the top five, but then glance through the 122 wins they’ve compiled over the last 25 years and, well, maybe not.

For starters, it just ain't the same without fans, and as Leo Cullen pointed out, it was only a quarter-final. Finals have to come first, and can only be usurped by an epic semi-final or a particularly epic quarter-final, so here are eight higher ranked Leinster victories in Europe.

8 – 2018 final, San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao. Leinster 15 Racing 12

Leinster had possibly scaled greater heights in putting Saracens to the sword in the quarter-finals and eviscerating Scarlets in the semi-finals, not to mention a pool double over Exeter. Racing, physical and impenetrable, dragged them into an arm wrestle, but Johnny Sexton kept probing, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose made inroads and Isa Nacewa, Leinster's greatest import, then 35, battered and playing in his last European match, stepped up to the tee with the last two penalties to earn that fourth star. Very fitting.


7 – 2012 final, Twickenham. Leinster 42 Ulster 14

Proof of their greatness came with perhaps their most complete performance in a final, with Ulster unfortunate to be on the receiving end. Seán O'Brien and Brian O'Driscoll were in their element, O'Brien powering over a few phases after his own turnover, and then supporting O'Driscoll's footwork and offload for Cian Healy to score. When their maul earned a penalty try early in the second half it was all over already. Leo Cullen became the first man to lift the trophy three times. They'd have beaten anybody in Europe that day.

6 – 2011 semi-final, Aviva Stadium. Leinster 32 Toulouse 23.

Leinster topped a pool with Racing, Saracens and Clermont, beat Leicester in the quarters before hosting Toulouse, then reigning champions and with four stars on their jerseys. Leinster twice fell behind and withstood O’Driscoll’s yellow card to ramp it up in the last 20 and win by two scores. Just a belter of a game.

5 – 2006 quarter-final, Le Stadium. Toulouse 35 Leinster 41.

Guy Noves's Toulouse team were in their pomp, reigning champions and seeking a fourth final appearance in a row, while Leinster had lost at home to Bath and away to Bourgoin in their pool. Felipe Contepomi kicked 21 points in a man-of-the-match performance and launched the length-of-the-pitch counter that culminated in Denis Hickie scoring one of their four tries. Even then, they threatened to let Toulouse snatch it at the death. Vintage, classic early Leinster. An unfulfilled breakthrough of sorts given Munster lurked in the Lansdowne semi-finals, but a promise of greater things to come, not least instilling belief in players that they could reach the Promised Land. And they did. And it did have that try.

4 – 2009 semi-final, Croke Park. Leinster 25 Munster 6

The point of no return. Munster had been on the crest of a wave, with two cups in the previous three seasons, had overwhelmed a strong Ospreys in the quarters and eight of their contingent had just been picked for the Lions. They'd won 10 games in a row, and had completed a handsome double over Leinster. But unlike three years earlier at Lansdowne Road, the Blue Army were there in equal numbers and Contepomi, charging at Ronan O'Gara and injuring himself, set the tone. Sexton stepped in seamlessly, and Gordon D'Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald scored in each half off lovely strike plays before O'Driscoll's intercept sealed the deal.

3 – 2012 semi-final, Stade Chaban Delmas. Clermont 15 Leinster 19

Leinster struck stealthily soon after the resumption when setting up a Joe Schmidt trick play in the middle of the pitch, Rob Kearney steaming onto Richardt Strauss's inside pass and finding Cian Healy in support.

But this was a superb Clermont team, with a clutch of club legends at their peak and their hungriest. In the Bordeaux heat, backed by a raucous Yellow Army, they threw everything at Leinster, especially in the end game. Clermont thought they'd snatched it in their late siege but Gordon D'Arcy's tackle did enough to prevent Wesley Fofana from completing the grounding.

With the clock well into the red, O'Brien clamped over the ball for dear life one last time, and Wayne Barnes signalled the final turnover penalty. Exhausting, draining and brilliant.

2 – 2009 final, Murrayfield. Leinster 19 Leicester Tigers 16

Despite the semi-final win over Munster, Leinster were still underdogs against the two-time winners, who were also top dogs in the Premiership that season. Although Sexton had coolly replaced Contepomi in that semi-final, this was still only his third European start, and Michael Cheika had replaced him at half-time in a pool defeat in Castres.

Sexton sandwiched a 50-metre drop goal with two first-half penalties and then after Jamie Heaslip powered over he landed the equalising conversion before curling the match-winning penalty inside the far post. The investment in man-of-the-match Rocky Elsom, Nacewa et al had been rewarded.

The all-important breakthrough.

1 – 2011 final, Millennium Stadium. Leinster 33 Northampton 22

Northampton had won all six pool matches before putting away Ulster and Perpignan to reach the final. They were hotly fancied in England.

Their Tongan loosehead Soane Tonga'uiha had been a wrecking ball en route, Dylan Hartley was, well, Dylan Hartley, and they had Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, who was lethal then. Tries by Phil Dowson, Foden and Hartley had them 22-6 up at the break.

Greg Feek problem solved a troubled scrum and Joe Schmidt brought on Shane Jennings at half-time. On the resumption O'Driscoll sniped up the guts of the Saints defence with Heaslip in support. Cue Sexton, with a close-range finish and then a second try after his trademark wrap in his unanswered 20-point haul in the third quarter. Confirmation of their greatness.