Leinster reached the semi-final stage of the Heineken Cup for the third successive year, outmuscling English champions Leinster Tigers in a 17-10 victory at the Aviva Stadium.
Jonathan Sexton, who booted 14 points when Ireland ended England’s RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam hopes three weeks ago, came up trumps again at the Aviva Stadium.
Leinster full-back Isa Nacewa scored the only try of the game in the 49th minute, and Sexton’s four penalties helped Leinster hold off a desperate late rally from Leicester.
The seven-point victory secured a home semi-final for Joe Schmidt’s men later this month, with Biarritz Olympique or Toulouse providing the opposition.
Schmidt’s side showed a great ability to absorb pressure and build cohesive attacks in what was another huge arm wrestle between these sides, their 11th meeting in European competition.
Leicester, who are top of the table in the Aviva Premiership, could have no real complaints after Leinster won most of the key individual battles. Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Kevin McLaughlin, Sexton, Eoin Reddan and Nacewa stood out in that regard.
Leicester will take little comfort from possibly bowing out to the eventual tournament winners, but few sides could have lived with Leinster’s unremitting ferocity – with and without possession.
Leinster paraded eight of the Ireland team that accounted for England last month, including game-breakers Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip.
The Leicester line-up included five England players who were involved that day, while an enforced change saw Boris Stankovich replace the suspended Marcos Ayerza in the front row.
Conditions were perfect for running rugby, and Leinster began as though they meant business with Nacewa and winger Luke Fitzgerald linking superbly to send flanker McLaughlin to within metres of Leicester’s try-line.
Sexton, who had taken a heavy blow during the move, recovered to kick an opening penalty, but Flood matched his strike just two minutes later.
Sexton’s second successful penalty after 15 minutes enjoyed a considerable slice of fortune as it ricocheted off both posts before dropping over the crossbar.
Leinster should have ended a frantic opening quarter by breaching Leicester’s defence, but after creating line-breaking space, Fitzgerald spilled a scoring pass from busy hooker Strauss.
It was a let-off for the Tigers, who struggled to contain the likes of Sean O’Brien and Nathan Hines at the breakdown, but they stormed back upfield and enjoyed sustained pressure before conceding a penalty inside the Leinster 22.
Leicester suffered an injury blow 12 minutes before the break when their England lock Louis Deacon was forced off – Ed Slater replaced him – and there remained little between the teams in a punishing, Test match-like clash dominated by two aggressive defences.
A third Sexton penalty gave Leinster a 9-3 buffer as the interval approached and his escalating authority on the game was then underlined by a raking touchfinder that landed deep inside Leicester territory.
Leicester began the second period in determined mood, and they kept pressing despite missing out on a try from powerful winger Alesana Tuilagi.
The match officials missed a forward pass in the build-up and Tuilagi looked destined to score in the left corner as he sprinted close to the touchline, but pressure from the covering O’Brien was enough to force the Samoan into touch just before he touched down.
Television match official Derek Bevan ruled out the try and Leinster wasted little time in trying to responded. Nacewa struck a telling blow when he gathered a clearance kick, linked with Shane Horgan and then cut inside Manu Tuilagi before keeping three Tigers defenders at bay on the way to the whitewash.
It was a mesmerising run from the full-back as he brilliantly held his balance and kept the Leicester players guessing as he glided into the 22, forcing his opposite number Scott Hamilton into a defensive slip and dotting down with a final twist of his body.
It proved the defining moment of a tie that Leinster deserved to win on the basis that they enjoyed longer periods of dominance in attack and defence than their opponents could muster.
And in the unforgiving world of knockout rugby, Leicester were punished for finding no way of releasing of Leinster’s iron grip on the scoreboard.
A fourth penalty from Sexton, five minutes from the finish, all but confirmed Leinster’s progress through to the last four.
Their blue defensive wall was breached in a tense finale. Leicester’s replacement hooker Rob Hawkins crossed from close range and Flood added the conversion.
However, a bloodied but unbowed O’Driscoll summed up Leinster’s sheer will to win and there was no way they would be denied.
There were some pleasing individual displays from Leinster, not least in the forwards where McLaughlin seems to be recapturing his best form and a rejuvenated Ross added some memorable carries to a solid shift in the scrum.
Speaking after the game, man-of-the-match Richardt Strauss said: “We knew that it was gonna be tough and we had to work hard. It was a hugely intense and physical battle and we all really appreciate the crowd who were great throughout.
“They (Leicester) have a good pack and a lot of experience in this competition so we had to dig deep at times.
“Thankfully our hard work paid off and irrespective of who we now face, they’re both two tough opponents.”
Singling out his captain Leo Cullen for special praise, Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt added: “Leo was massive and our lineout defence was certainly a swinging point and what our win was based upon.
“There were a number of turning points in the match, it really did swing back and forth, and we missed a few chances in the first half when we made some fantastic line-breaks.
“But we always had scoreboard pressure on them, to a degree they were playing catch-up rugby, and our fantastic defence kept them out when they pressed.
“As well as Leo, Richardt Strauss has been a real dynamo for us this season and Isa Nacewa was exceptional – the try he scored and the ground he covered – he is a different class and as tough as boots.
“I had the faith we would always stay disciplined and keep our shape and there were so many tired players out there from both sides.
“That was as physical as I have seen but that is Heineken Cup rugby and while it was not a Test match as such, it was for us.”