Brian O’Driscoll bagged a last-minute bonus point for an off-colour Leinster side as they overcame a stubborn Brive side at the RDS on Saturday evening.
A lack of game-time over the festive period, with their two Magners League fixtures being postponed, left the reigning Heineken Cup champions with a far from ideal run-in to this Pool 6 tie.
But despite obvious rustiness and a scrappy all-round display, there were enough glimpses of class shown – including Shane Horgan’s sublime offload for Brian O’Driscoll’s dramatic late score – to seal a deserved fourth pool win for Michael Cheika’s men.
The result has moved the Irish province five points clear at the top of Pool 6, putting the pressure back on their nearest rivals London Irish who are away to the Scarlets on Sunday before hosting Leinster in a likely pool decider at Twickenham next week.
Back after a spell out with a hand injury, Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty and two conversions, the first of which came after a penalty try.
Isa Nacewa and Gordon D’Arcy were Leinster’s other try scorers, while Brive’s commitment and spirit saw them deservedly cross the whitewash twice through Retief Uys and Scott Spedding.
When these sides met in France in October, Leinster ran out comfortable 36-13 winners but this time around, with captain Antoine Claassen and Wales’ Alix Popham setting the physical tone, Brive were altogether more competitive.
Their Italian out-half Luciano Orquera missed a third minute penalty but Leinster’s line was never truly tested in a sloppy opening quarter and a lovely show-and-go got the returning Sexton into the groove.
The vast majority of the 17,836-strong crowd breathed a sigh of relief on 26 minutes when referee Andrew Small awarded the hosts a penalty try.
The Brive forwards gave way for a second time as Leinster’s bulky eight got the nudge on at a five-metre scrum, and Sexton slotted the simple conversion.
The score came off the home side’s first incisive bit of attacking play – winger Nacewa’s dinked kick was gathered by the advancing D’Arcy who was held up just short.
Sexton and man-of-the-match Jamie Heaslip almost followed up with a second try before the break, but, on the resumption, Leinster quickly built on their 7-0 half-time buffer.
Sexton slammed over a penalty before a well-timed run from full-back Rob Kearney, a change of direction by flanker Kevin McLaughlin and a deft pass by O’Driscoll sent Nacewa over in the left corner.
Brive hit back on the hour mark when athletic lock Uys showed great strength and feet to swivel his way over after breaking loose from a lineout maul.
The try went unconverted and Leinster responded seven minutes later when D’Arcy slipped out of a tackle and dotted down to the right of the posts, with Sexton adding the extras.
With four minutes to go and the game becoming looser and looser, Leinster were almost through for a fourth try when Nacewa kicked through – only for the bouncing ball to elude the advancing Kearney.
The moment was made all the worse when replacement Viliame Waqaseduadua blazed forward on the counter and some excellent continuity was finished off by full-back Spedding whose brilliant step left the Leinster cover for dead.
Nonetheless, Leinster engineered a final attacking platform off a midfield scrum and they struck devastatingly for the bonus point. Kearney hared onto a Shaun Berne pass, Horgan swerved off his right in support and a deft behind-the-back offload out of the tackle teed up O’Driscoll for a darting run to the corner.