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Exeter Chiefs ponder what could have been after running holders Leinster close

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 15, 2012

  • Exeter Chiefs' Tom Johnson is tackled by Leinster's Fergus McFadden during the 9-6 win for the Irish side on Saturday picture: Brendan Moran/Pinnacle

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It surely cannot be too long before Exeter Chiefs claim the big scalp on their European cup travels that their efforts deserve.

Two seasons ago, they went down 32-30 in Montpellier in the Amlin Challenge Cup after conceding a late converted try, with Ryan Davis just off target with a drop-goal attempt with the last kick of the match.

Last season, they were edged out 15-12 in Perpignan, and then 22-17 in Paris by Stade Francais, again by a late touchdown, in the same competition.

On Saturday, they once again had to taste an agonising defeat as they made their bow in the Heineken Cup.

They were given little chance of getting anything out of their trip to Dublin to face the Cup holders, who had captured the trophy in three of the past four seasons.

Leinster's star-studded line-up contained 11 full internationals, with 367 caps between them, and 462 Heineken Cup games under their collective belts. They had also only lost once in the competition in their previous 18 matches.

Yet, if Ignacio Mieres had slotted a penalty from halfway with the last kick of the contest, Exeter would have come away from Dublin's RDS Arena with a famous draw, which was the very least they merited after such a tremendous performance.

No blame at all should be attached to the Argentinian fly-half, who had only been on the pitch for 14 minutes after replacing Gareth Steenson.

It was his first kick at goal in the match, and it was a real shot to nothing, and sadly, nothing is what he got from it.

Frustratingly for Exeter, the real cause of their downfall was their knack of getting turned over or giving away a penalty on several occasions when they got themselves into good attacking positions inside Leinster's 22.

Part of that was down to great work by the hosts, but Exeter errors were also to blame. It was a feature of their performance that had cost them so dearly against Leicester at Welford Road two weeks before.

An under-cooked Leinster were there for the taking on Saturday, but a battle-hardened Chiefs just came up short.

However, that is perhaps being a bit tough on a group of players who did their team and their county proud, and caused their top-class opponents all manner of problems.

They launched attack after attack, they tackled their hearts out, and were more than a match for the Irishmen in the set piece.

It was pretty much even-stevens in the kicking department as well, with Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton slotting three out of five attempts at goal, while Exeter's own Irishman, Steenson, landed two from four, before making way for Mieres.

Leinster had two early penalty opportunities inside the first 11 minutes to take the lead, with Sexton registering with the more difficult one of the two for a 3-0 advantage.

Steenson was off target from 38 metres, but could have had a much more close-range chance soon after if the television match official had not given Leinster full-back Ian Madigan the huge benefit of the doubt when he appeared to deliberately palm the ball over the deadball line when under pressure from Exeter winger Matt Jess.

At the other end, England flanker Tom Johnson put in a superb tackle on Ireland No.8 Jamie Heaslip to wipe out a possible three-on-two overlap.

Steenson was just wide with a 51-metre penalty shot, but on the stroke of half-time, Exeter got the points they merited when they destroyed Leinster at a scrum on the Irishmen's own put-in, and Steenson banged over the penalty to make it 3-3 at the break.

Leinster began the second half brightly, but solid Exeter defence meant the hosts had to content themselves with three more points from Sexton, while he also missed another pot at goal.

Steenson again levelled matters with his second penalty of the game in the 65th minute, and Leinster's growing concern at the state of play was demonstrated with Madigan's audacious drop-goal attempt from 50 metres, which was only just wide.

Sexton looked to have sealed victory with his third penalty of the game six minutes from time after Exeter replacement prop Ben Moon had tackled a player from an offside position.

As they tried to run the clock down, though, Leinster conceded a penalty on halfway, only for Mieres to just miss out on his chance for glory.

After this display, Exeter will tackle the visit of French giants Clermont Auvergne to Sandy Park on Saturday full of confidence.

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