Leinster overcame a series of injuries and two first half yellow cards to gain a vital losing bonus point in Saturday’s 19-12 Heineken Cup Pool 2 defeat to London Wasps at Twickenham.
Wasps could live to regret allowing Leinster to earn a losing bonus point by accepting a late shot at goal instead of pushing for a try which would have seen them take control of the Pool 2.
As it stands now, Leinster can guarantee their quarter-final qualification as pool winners by scoring a bonus point win over Edinburgh at the RDS next weekend. Wasps, though, could take that top spot away from them if they secure a better result in Castres.
The Londoners will be frustrated by the end result about as much as they were frustrated to see uncontested scrums introduced after Leinster lost two props inside 37 minutes.
By that point, Wasps had moved 16-6 ahead and scored the only try, finished by flanker Serge Betsen but created by a lightning break from Josh Lewsey and powerful run by his former England colleague Paul Sackey.
The 30,000-plus attendance at Twickenham was three times the number Wasps could have housed at Adams Park and they certainly witnessed an action-packed afternoon, which included three yellow cards but only 37 minutes of scrummaging.
CJ Van Der Linde and Stan Wright both started after passing late fitness tests – but neither lasted until the interval as Leinster, having been under the kosh up front throughout the first half, forced uncontested scrums.
On the back of that forward dominance and an electric performance from their back-three, Wasps opened up a 10-point lead with Betsen’s try and 11 points from Danny Cipriani.
In blustery conditions, Cipriani started the game with two misses from relatively simple penalties before eventually finding his radar to push Wasps ahead.
Wasps surged further ahead with a blistering try finished by Betsen but owing everything to Lewsey’s pace and vision and Sackey’s power.
Lewsey dummied a kick and burst past Leinster captain Leo Cullen before Sackey fended off three defenders – and when George Skivington was hauled down just short of the line, Betsen collected the loose ball and dived over.
Luck was not on Leinster’s side as they lost Van Der Linde and Cullen in a double substitution after 18 minutes but Felipe Contepomi did nudge them onto the scoreboard shortly afterwards.
Cipriani replied in kind before Leinster were reduced to 14 men when Rob Kearney was harshly sin-binned for his part in an off-the-ball incident with Sackey.
Wasps took swift advantage with Lewsey crashing onto an inside pass from Cipriani and over the gainline before James Haskell’s determined run earned a simple penalty under the posts.
The last seven minutes of the first half was full of drama. Betsen was sin-binned for a cynical trip on Contepomi, who was chasing down a loose ball after Cipriani had dropped his second high ball of the evening.
Contempomi slotted the penalty but Leinster were back at full strength for barely a minute when Kearney was replaced in the sin-bin by Malcolm O’Kelly, who was despatched for an apparent stamp on Phil Vickery.
A minute later, Wright left the field with ice on his neck and the match was reduced to uncontested scrums.
Contepomi pushed Leinster to within four points at 13-9 with the last kick of the first half and without any forward contest the game was a fractured affair after the interval.
Contempomi and Cipriani exchanged penalties before Brian O’Driscoll, who was involved in some big plays, returned from a spell in the blood bin to inspire Leinster’s best attacking period of the match.
Lewsey came close to scoring the try he deserved with another barnstorming run but Leinster kept him out with some determined defence.
Wasps earned a kickable penalty three minutes from time and Vickery opted for the kick, which Dave Walder converted. It sealed the win but also gifted Leinster the losing bonus point.
The ‘Battle of the Capitals’ may have lacked skill but it was an absorbing encounter and Leinster, when they reflect on the video, will be at least thankful that their Heineken Cup destiny is still in their own hands.