The Aviva Stadium once again proved to be a graveyard for English ambitions as Leinster comprehensively dismantled Wasps in a Champions Cup quarter-final defeat that damaged the stock of several players, not least Willie le Roux.
With the score at 8-3 to Leinster in the first half, the South African full-back should have scored one of the tries of the season for Wasps after a sensational break by Kurtley Beale, only to drop the ball in the process of diving over the line. By half time, his act of self-indulgent stupidity had gone viral across social media and should earn him a slice of unwanted immortality in bloopers’ reels. Rightly so.
Still, that single act did not cost Wasps the game. Much like England’s 13-9 defeat against Ireland in the Six Nations, Wasps simply could not match Leinster’s intensity. They were dominated at the gain line and consequently forced the rest of the game.
Le Roux’s howler was compounded by the concession of two first-phase tries late in the first half. Christian Wade and Jimmy Gopperth each produced individual scores to get Wasps back into the game in the second half before Fergus McFadden’s try six minutes from time settled the game.
A match that had promised so much between the leaders of the Pro12 and Aviva Premiership was overwhelmingly one-sided. Leinster enjoyed two thirds of possession and territory while making three times as many metres with ball in hand. If it was a last chance to impress the Lions selectors then only the Leinster contingent, in particular Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Garry Ringrose and Devin Toner, finished with plenty of credit.
Yet by far the best player was Joey Carbery, usually Sexton’s understudy at fly-half but starting at full-back, where he was sensational, making 200 metres with ball in hand and setting up two tries. Despite not being selected by Ireland during the Six Nations, Carbery has emerged as a real bolter for Warren Gatland to consider.
Dai Young, the Wasps’ director of rugby, refused to pin the blame on Le Roux. “We could have been 10-8 up after 25 minutes,” he said. “I know a lot of people will look at that as a turning factor, and it certainly didn’t help us, but we still had 55 minutes to play. We had plenty of time to turn it around. He has got his heads in his hands and has apologised to the coaches and to the players. I don’t think any coach is going to crucify his own player.
“It looked like the occasion got to us a little bit. We had opportunities with the ball but we tried to force things. We looked like we were panicking. The frustrating part is we didn’t give ourselves a chance. We handed them 14 points and it gave us a massive mountain to climb.”
The first half was horror show. From the off and it had the makings of Alfred Hitchcock classic, from the eerie location to the ominous signs of what was to come: Elliot Daly making probably his first unforced error of the year and Danny Cipriani kicking out on the full. Then the shower curtain was thrown back and the dagger came down.
Leinster quickly established a decisive lead. Flanker Dan Leavy was just brought down by Gopperth short of the line but Carbery spun the ball left for Isa Nacewa to score in the corner in spite of Wade’s attempted tackle.
Leinster remained in control. Wasps’ back play, usually so slick and sleek, was full of misplaced passes and knock-ons. Yet a back line with that much talent can only misfire for so long. Gopperth looked to be in serious trouble when he fielded a kick and was immediately scragged by the Leinster chasers, but managed to pop the ball up to Beale. The Australian seemed to be contained but stepped and slipped his way into open field. He drew the last defender before offloading to Le Roux on his shoulder, who proceeded to enter himself into rugby’s hall of shame.
Gopperth got the away team on the scoreboard with a penalty, but astonishingly there was still more self-inflicted punishment in store. Leinster’s second try came after Beale had called a mark. After kicking downfield to Carbery, Wasps’ defensive line was set. Yet with no great sleight of hand, Carbery was able to exchange passes with McFadden before putting No 8 Jack Conan over.
To concede one try off first phase may be considered unfortunate, to concede two within seven minutes of each other is close to unforgivable. With half time just seconds away, Wasps had a maul in their own half which was going nowhere. Suddenly the ball came loose and in a flash Leavy scooped it up to O’Brien. He found Sexton, who in turn sent Robbie Henshaw over to spark ecstatic celebrations.
Game over? Not quite. When Sexton kicked his second penalty in the 49th minute to extend Leinster’s lead to 25-3 it seemed inconsequential but that was before Wasps struck with two rapid-fire blows. Replacement Ashley Johnson threw a sumptuous wide pass to Wade, who had been left unattended by Nacewa. Wade rarely needs a head-start and proceeded to scorch down the touchline.
Wasps’ second try was purely down to Gopperth, now playing at first receiver after the ineffectual Cipriani had been replaced. There seemed little on when he received the ball facing a stacked Leinster midfield, but with one sidestep he was past two players, his acceleration took him past two more and his momentum allowed him to burst through Carberry’s tackle on the line. The Kiwi converted his own try and suddenly the gap was just eight points.
Nerves suddenly started to fill the air, even if Leinster remained in control of territory and possession. In truth. Wasps never truly threatened again, but it was still with considerable relief that McFadden capitalised on Toner’s strong carry to score from close range and make the game safe.
Scores 3-0 Sexton pen; 8-0 Nacewa try; 8-3 Gopperth pen; 13-3 Conan try; 15-3 Sexton con; 20-3 Henshaw try; 22-3 Sexton con; 25-3 Sexton pen; 25-8 Wade try; 25-10 Sexton con; 25-15 Gopperth try; 25-17 Gopperth con; 30-17 McFadden try; 32-17 Sexton con.
Leinster J Carbery (Z Kirchner 78); A Byrne (F McFadden 22), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 63); J McGrath (C Healy 52), R Strauss (J Tracy 55), T Furlong (M Bent 66), D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 59), D Leavy, S O’Brien (J van der Flier, 67), J Conan.
Wasps K Beale; C Wade, E Daly, J Gopperth, W Le Roux; D Cipriani (A Leiua, 55), D Robson (J Simpson 49); M Mullan (S McIntrye 58), T Taylor, J Cooper-Woolley (M Moore 49), J Launchbury, K Myall (M Symons 49), J Haskell, T Young (A Johnson 49), N Hughes (A Rieder, 77).
RefereeN Owens (Wales).