Leinster set up home semi-final after dethroning European champions
By Daire Walsh
LEINSTER produced the goods on Easter Sunday at the Aviva Stadium, dethroning previous winners Saracens in the quarter-final of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
With the Kildare triumvirate of Fergus McFadden, James Tracy and Joey Carbery all playing their part in a 30-19 success, Leo Cullen’s side maintained their charge for a first European top-tier title since 2012.
McFadden featured in the Blues’ back-three alongside Rob Kearney and James Lowe, while Tracy and Carbery were vital back-up options for Irish internationals Sean Cronin and Jonathan Sexton.
Superb combination play between Lowe, Isa Nacewa and Garry Ringrose provided the platform for the latter to break over the Sarries whitewash, and a Sexton bonus strike helped to increase their lead.
A six-point haul by Owen Farrell kept the visitors in touch, before the English fly-half cancelled out a subsequent Sexton penalty. It was a mixed end to the opening period for Ireland number ten-in-chief, who followed up a 34th-minute effort by immediately giving away a penalty at the opposite end.
Outside centre Marcelo Bosch brilliantly split the posts from long-distance, leaving the bare minimum between the teams at the break (13-12). Sexton regained his composure with a third penalty on the resumption, however, and a superb Dan Leavy try edged them a step closer to the penultimate round.
James Lowe also got over on 57 minutes for a five-pointer that was supplemented by a McFadden conversion. With Tracy, Carbery and a succession of replacements providing fresh impetus, Leinster remained in the driving seat.
Saracens did claim a maul try through Blair Cowan, but it couldn’t prevent their three in-a-row aspirations from coming to an abrupt end.
Scarlets had already booked their spot in the last-four on Friday evening, when Tadhg Beirne delivered another outstanding performance in a 29-17 victory over European rookies La Rochelle. The Eadestown native has switched effortlessly between second-row and blindside flanker during his time with the Welsh region and recently past the 50 cap mark for Wayne Pivac’s side.
In addition to tries by Rhys Patchell and Scott Williams, 19 points from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny helped last season’s PRO12 champions to overpower their French counterparts.
At the end of the current term, Beirne will transfer to Munster in a bid to boost his international prospects ahead of next year’s World Cup. The Red Army enjoyed a memorable success against Toulon at Thomond Park on Saturday – a devastating 75th-minute try from Andrew Conway setting up a mouthwatering semi-final encounter with Racing 92.
Meanwhile, there was disappointment for Ballymore Eustace man Craig Ronaldson at the Sportsground on the same day. Despite recording five-pointers through Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy, Connacht came out on the wrong side of an eight-try thriller (33-28) in the Challenge Cup.
Ronaldson replaced Jack Carty in the 57th-minute, and ensured the westerners remained in touch with a five-point haul off the kicking tee.