Leinster came through a nail-biting finish against Bath to secure a tight victory in today’s European Champions Cup quarter-final, with man-of-the-match Ian Madigan kicking all of their points…Jamie Heaslip post-match reaction…
Ian Madigan, the tournament's top scorer this season, punished Bath indiscipline with six penalties from six attempts as Leinster set up a semi-final away to either defending champions Toulon or Wasps.
An engrossed Aviva Stadium crowd watched Matt O'Connor's men exert more control as the first half went on, particularly after Bath full-back Anthony Watson saw yellow for a clumsy 25th minute challenge on Rob Kearney. Madigan kicked two penalties while Watson was off and a 38th minute effort from the out-half widened the margin to 15-5.
Bath did have their moments, though, and a touch of class from George Ford saw him take advantage of mismatch to dart over for a terrific try at the end of the first quarter. However, he missed the conversion to add to an earlier penalty miss.
The English side were back to their clinical best in the 46th minute when out-half Ford sliced open the Leinster defence again and his instinctive offload put the supporting Stuart Hooper over to the right of the posts.
Ford's conversion made it a three-point game, but crucially Leinster responded within six minutes as Martin Moore, on as a replacement for Mike Ross, maintained the province's stranglehold of the scrum, winning what proved to be the match-winning penalty.
But the outcome was in doubt right until the final whistle as Bath, who had a couple of eye-catching runs from Watson, stayed in the hunt. Ford booted his only successful penalty with seven minutes to go and veteran Irish scrum half Peter Stringer now on the pitch.
As Mike Ford's side pushed for a levelling score or even better, Leinster had to dig deep in defence to keep Bath out. In the end, the province's greater level of European experience saw them hold on to book their fifth European Cup semi-final appearance in seven years.
Giving his reaction afterwards, Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip said: ‘Those 43,000-odd fans really got us through those last five to 10 minutes. We know we still have a lot to work on and we've got a massive league match coming up next week (away to the Dragons), but we know both of the teams we could play in the semi-final very well and we're just very glad to be there.
‘It was a difficult game. We put ourselves in positions to take our scores and I'm not concerned at all that we didn't score any tries. We played what was in front of us and we got into positions and then got penalties. I don't care if we win by one or 10 points – just as long as we win
‘Because these are the games we all want to play in. You want to be busy at this time of year. We said all week that if we made mistakes against a team like Bath at this level of competition then it would be difficult. Bath scored some tries and it went to the wire – they are so hard to unlock and they have some real attacking prowess.’
After the hosts had ironed out some early set piece issues, Matt Banahan and Champions Cup debutant Ben Te'o both carried well before losing possession in contact.
Leinster opened the scoring in the 13th minute, using a penalty advantage to send Cian Healy and Heaslip crashing through in the Bath 22. Play was called back for the place-kick and a confidence-boosting strike from Madigan got his side on the scoreboard.
Ford was unable to respond from a difficult 50-metre penalty, but Bath gave a glimpse of their attacking quality with a Horacio Agulla break and then flanker Francois Louw breezed through off the back of a ruck. Leinster scrambled back but a penalty advantage allowed Ford to dummy past Devin Toner and Jordi Murphy and his pace took his away from the covering Kearney for a smashing individual score.
The England international missed the right-sided conversion, however, and the momentum swung back to Leinster as Madigan made it 6-5 after Bath flanker Carl Fearns went off his feet at a ruck.
Watson was then dispatched to the sin-bin for his challenge on an airborne Kearney at the restart and with Bath hooker Rob Webber then caught offside, Madigan's razor-sharp right boot delivered three more points.
The centre's next strike went in off the post, rewarding an advancing Leinster scrum, and he drew a fifth successful attempt in from right to left in the dying minutes after a powerful Fergus McFadden hit drew big cheers from the vocal home support.
Leinster were first out of the traps in the second period. Zane Kirchner, who replaced McFadden on the right wing, was just denied by a great cover tackle from Micky Young near the right corner flag.
Full-back Kearney drifted a long range drop goal attempt wide and just moments later, resilient Bath built for their second try. That man Ford accelerated between Toner and Healy this time and he linked brilliantly with Bath captain Hooper who had little trouble in finishing off the attack. Ford added the extras to cut the gap to only three points.
Nonetheless, Leinster's increasingly influential scrum got them back on track, winning a penalty inside halfway as Moore continued where Ross had left off. Madigan's had the required accuracy and distance for an 18-12 scoreline.
For all of Leinster's possession in the third quarter, they continued to be met by a stubborn Bath defence and space was really at a premium. Bath were dangerous on the counter, particularly Watson, and Leinster, with Eoin Reddan now on at scrum half, could ill-afford any loose kicking out of hand.
Prop Moore came up with the goods at a ruck, winning a relieving penalty, but Bath were making more headway inside the final 10 minutes and after Stringer won a penalty from Sean O'Brien, Ford took the three points on offer to set up a grandstand finish.
A Bath forward pass briefly lifted the pressure on the Leinster defence and Jimmy Gopperth had to come to the rescue, getting back to touch down for a drop-out after Reddan had a kick charged down off the side of a scrum.
The tension for the home fans was finally lifted when Leinster won a final penalty at the breakdown, allowing the players to celebrate their progress to the last-four of Europe's premier club competition.
LEINSTER SCORERS: I. Madigan (6 penalties)
BATH SCORERS: G. Ford (1 try, 1 conversion and 1 penalty), S. Hooper (1 try)
15. Rob Kearney (Gordon D'Arcy, 74)
14. Fergus McFadden (Zane Kirchner, 41)
13. Ben Te'o
12. Ian Madigan
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jimmy Gopperth
9. Isaac Boss (Eoin Reddan, 57)
1. Cian Healy (Jack McGrath, 58)
2. Sean Cronin (Richardt Strauss, 65)
3. Mike Ross (Martin Moore, 50)
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy (Tom Denton, 71)
6. Jordi Murphy
7. Sean O'Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip CAPTAIN
REPLACEMENT NOT USED: Dominic Ryan.
BATH: Anthony Watson; Horacio Agulla, Jonathan Joseph, Kyle Eastmond, Matt Banahan; George Ford, Micky Young; Paul James, Rob Webber, Kane Palma-Newport, Stuart Hooper CAPTAIN, Dave Attwood, Carl Fearns, Francois Louw, Leroy Houston.
REPLACEMENTS: Ross Batty, Nick Auterac, Max Lahiff, Matt Garvey, Alafoti Faosiliva, Peter Stringer, Sam Burgess, Tom Homer.
REFEREE: Jerome Garces (France); ASSISTANT REFEREES: Christophe Berdos, Patrick Pechambert (both France); FOURTH OFFICIAL: Maxime Chalon (France); TMO: Eric Gauzins (France); CITING COMMISSIONER: Yves Thieffine (France)