When you’re playing in the Premiership leaders’ back-yard, a notoriously difficult away venue, a fast start is key. Storming into a 17-0 lead inside the opening 22 minutes is about as good as it gets.
elford Road was bouncing long before kick-off, but it didn’t take Leinster long to find their groove and silence the home crowd.
The first-half was Leinster at their brilliant best, the second was all about their dogged grit and determination.
Any fears that the first-choice team might be rusty having not played in three weeks were put to bed, as Leo Cullen’s men out-classed Leicester to set up a heavyweight Heineken Champions Cup semi-final clash with Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium next weekend.
Having only won one of their previous four games at Welford Road, this was a real statement of Leinster’s title credentials, as they now have the defending champions in their sights.
As expected, Leicester brought their kick-heavy game-plan, but Leinster were armed and ready to the assault, with the pack fronting up in a big way.
Leinster had the edge at scrum-time, with French referee Mathieu Raynal very much in the spotlight, while the visitors’ aggressive line speed repeatedly forced Leicester into making errors on the gain-line.
Robbie Henshaw set the tone in that regard with a towering defensive display, while Caelan Doris’ ballast and James Ryan’s return were also major contributing factors.
Jamison Gibson-Park was excellent throughout, as the scrum-half’s sniping breaks and calming presence helped steady the ship.
Leading 20-0 at the break, thanks to tries from Gibson-Park and Josh van der Flier, Leinster looked like they could pull clear, only for the Tigers to threaten to pull off what would have been a stunning comeback.
It wasn’t to be, however, as although Leinster scored just three second-half points, the damage had been done, with the only negative being injuries to Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Jimmy O’Brien. Thankfully, all three players looked fine after the full-time whistle.
Sexton kicked an early penalty to put his side in front and as Leicester threw everything at Leinster, the visitors were able to withstand the pressure.
Ryan and Sexton combined brilliantly for a double tackle on Ollie Cheesum, which forced a knock on and disrupted the Tigers’ flow.
Having ridden the storm, Leinster grew in confidence and when James Lowe and Gibson-Park linked well for a counter-attack that saw Hugo Keenan make huge ground, they sensed blood.
Leicester snuffed out their initial attempts, but Leinster stayed patient and when they won a five-metre lineout, they looked for all the world as if they would set up the driving maul, only for Van der Flier to clever;y peel off the back and power through Harry Potter on his way over the line.
Sexton converted and was soon adding the extras for Leinster’s second try. Henshaw started the move by making a strong carry off a lineout before several phases later, the outstanding centre found himself a couple of metres from the line.
Despite George Ford’s best efforts, Henshaw was never going to be stopped from that range, as Leinster opened up a commanding 17-0 advantage.
The home fans were growing frustrated, particularly with Raynal, and when Ryan came up with a crucial lineout steal close to his own line, it added to the dismay around Welford Road.
There was still time left in the half for Sexton to add a second penalty, thanks to Gibson-Park’s superb jackal turnover following an excellent Garry Ringrose tackle on Freddie Steward.
Leinster were sluggish after the start and Leicester made them pay when Ford put Chris Ashton over in the corner, with the defence stretched.
Ford converted and suddenly the momentum was all with the hosts. Another scrum penalty led to a kickable shot in front of the posts, but they rolled the dice and went to the corner.
A combination of Van der Flier, Jimmy O’Brien and Dan Sheehan held up the gigantic Nemani Nadolo over the line but we went back for an earlier offside infringement. Leinster were on the ropes, only for Ryan to pinch his second five-metre lineout to ease the onslaught.
It was only momentarily respite, however, and but for Hanro Liebenberg losing his footing and knocking on after deciding to take a quick-tap penalty deep in the 22, Leinster could have been in even more trouble.
That knocked the stuffing out of Leicester and it allowed Leinster their first foray into the Tigers’ 22 and it almost yielded a third try when Van der Flier blocked Potter’s kick and just as it looked like Jack Conan would score, Jasper Wiese nipped in ahead of his opposite number.
From the resulting scrum, Richard Wigglesworth was penalised for taking out Gibson-Park, and Ross Byrne, who had only just come on in place of a bloodied Sexton, fired over the kick to settle any late nerves.
23-7 to the good with 15 minutes remaining, Cullen looked to his bench for reinforcements and the front-row of Healy, Sheehan and Michael Ala’alatoa came up with a massive moment by winning a scrum penalty against the head in their own 22.
That essentially ended Leicester’s hopes of overturning the deficit, and although Nic Dolly got over for a late consolation try, which Ford converted, it was too little too late.
Leinster march on to the last four and returning to the comforts of the Aviva Stadium, they will fancy their chances against Toulouse.
Scorers – Leicester: Ashton, Dolly try each, Ford 2 cons. Leinster: Van der Flier, Henshaw try each, Sexton 2 pens, 2 cons.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; C Ashton (F Burns 66), M Moroni (N Nadolo 45), G Porter, H Potter; G Ford, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 59); E Genge (capt) (J Whitcombe 76), J Montoya (N Dolly 74), D Cole (J Heyes 59); O Chessum, C Green (H Wells 62); H Liebenberg, T Reffell (G Martin 50), J Wiese.
Leinster: H Keenan; J O’Brien (T O’Brien 72), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt) (R Byrne 62), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 71); A Porter (C Healy 62-76), R Kelleher (D Sheehan 48), T Furlong (M Ala’alatoa, 62); R Molony, J Ryan (J McCarthy 76); C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan (R Ruddock 71).
Referee: M Raynal (France).