Hat-trick hero Lowe stars as Leinster edge Northampton in Champions Cup semi-final

Hat-trick hero: Leinster wing James Lowe celebrates after scoring his third try during a European Champions Cup semi-final against Northampton at Croke Park (Oli SCARFF)
Hat-trick hero: Leinster wing James Lowe celebrates after scoring his third try during a European Champions Cup semi-final against Northampton at Croke Park (Oli SCARFF)

James Lowe scored a hat-trick of tries as Leinster survived a late scare to beat Northampton 20-17 at Dublin's Croke Park on Saturday to reach a third successive European Champions Cup final.

The Ireland wing crossed twice in four minutes early in the first half in what was effectively a home semi-final for Leinster, who are based across town at Donnybrook.

Leinster will now look to go one better after losing the last two Champions Cup finals to a La Rochelle side coached by Ireland great Ronan O'Gara when they face the winners of Sunday's semi-final in France between record five-time European kings Toulouse and Harlequins at London's Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 25.

Four-time European champions Leinster dominated the opening 40 minutes to lead 15-3 at the break.

And when New Zealand-born Lowe, 31, went over early in the second half, the Irish province were in command at 20-3.

But with Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne repeatedly off target from the kicking tee, English Premiership leaders Northampton, however, recovered and when replacement Tom Seabrook scored a converted try six minutes from time, they were just three points behind.

The Saints were without injured captain Lewis Ludlam and wing Ollie Sleightholme, sidelined following concussion.

Former England skipper Courtney Lawes led Northampton in Ludlam's absence.

Leinster's early dominance was rewarded when they opened the scoring in the 10th minute.

Jamison Gibson-Park's quick tap penalty near the Saints' line caught Northampton napping and the scrum-half's superb long pass allowed fellow Ireland international Lowe to score at the left corner.

Byrne converted and Leinster led 7-0.

Four minutes later, Lowe had a second try.

Byrne made a break and Leinster's pack then took up the charge with a rolling maul that collapsed in sight of the try-line.

But the ball was fed back to Gibson-Park, who knocked it back to Lowe for another try in the corner.

This time Byrne's conversion from out wide hit the left post but Leinster were 12-0 ahead to the delight of a crowd of over 82,000.

Leinster were then awarded a scrum penalty by French referee Mathieu Raynal, Byrne making no mistake from close range to extend his side's lead to 15-0 on the half-hour mark.

And when Northampton made inroads, Lowe was well-positioned in defence to deal with any kicks ahead, with his big left boot allowing Leinster to clear any developing danger.

Northampton's first sustained handling move ended with James Ramm knocking on from a pass behind him when a try loomed.

But play was brought back for a penalty, with Fin Smith on target as the Saints at last got on the scoreboard.

One slim consolation for Northampton at the break was that Leinster had overhauled an even greater half-time deficit to beat them in the 2011 Champions Cup final in Cardiff, scoring 27 unanswered points as they came from 6-22 down to win 33-22.

Lowe, however, completed his hat-trick just three minutes into the second half after a surging run by blindside flanker Ryan Baird.

Byrne's conversion drifted wide but Leinster now led by 17 points.

Northampton, however, hit back with their first try of the game when Leinster failed to deal with George Hendy's chip over the defence before the wing regathered to score in the corner.

Smith converted and Northampton had a glimmer of hope at 10-20 behind heading into the final quarter, with Byrne missing a 40-metre penalty that would have put the result beyond doubt.

Byrne's errors were compounded when Northampton replacement Seabrook crossed in the 74th minute after the Saints punched holes in Leinster's defence, with Smith adding an important conversion.

But with the Saints pressing for another score, Leinster won a breakdown penalty and closed out the match.