Van der Flier and Kelleher make Lions statements at Sandy Park
The performance of Josh van der Flier had former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton purring.
While most Exeter supporters, and the wider English rugby public, had no issues with Leinster's Champions Cup win at Sandy Park, Austin Healey found one.
Leinster went to the home of the 2020 European champions and, not anywhere in their game-plan, gave up a 14-0 head-start. They also lost Johnny Sexton to a failed Head Injury Assessment after 28 minutes and saw two Exeter players avoid red, or even yellow, cards for borderline high shots on his replacement, Ross Byrne.
Despite all that, and coming up against an excellent Tom O'Flaherty and Dave Ewers, Leinster went on to win 34-22. They were in such a good position by the 80th minute that there was no grumbling when Rory O'Loughlin had an intercept try chalked off.
Many had questioned whether Leinster would be up for the fight, given the manner with which they cruised to PRO14 glory in late March. Few were questioning them come full-time, although Healey had one grumble. The former Leicester and England star asked:
Leinster very good but was there a deliberate knock on when chiefs were attacking under the posts on 70mins?
— Austin Healey (@IamAustinHealey) April 10, 2021
The flood of responses to Healy's tweet told him that Exeter had been fortunate with a few calls made by referee Mathieu Raynal, that Leinster had been the better side and that, no, there had been nothing deliberate about that knock on.
Exeter certainly took their licks and Rob Baxter, their director of rugby, had no complaints. He admitted his team had gone "off-script" after taking an early lead against Leinster.
"We were getting turned over, we were running patterns we don't normally run, we chucked a couple of lineouts we wouldn't normally chuck. And it just shows you - that's what the pressure from a good side like Leinster can do. And I must make sure that we do give them immense credit today because they kept an intensity in the game that never let us settle."
When it came to setting that incessant tempo and biting pressure, look no further than van der Flier and his Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher. While Robbie Henshaw left Sandy Park with the man of the match award, both of these lads will head off with the bottomless gratitude of their teammates and coaches.
Kelleher secured two turnovers at the breakdown while van der Flier had a couple himself. Both men went close on another couple of occasions and, almost as importantly, slowed down Exeter ruck ball to a crawl.
Rónan Kelleher with another huge turnover 💪💪 pic.twitter.com/Fc3y0uTorX
— Pat McCarry (@patmccarry) April 10, 2021
That red scrum-cap of van der Flier's was leading the charge and cutting down space for the likes of Joe Simmonds and Jack Maunder. Kelleher also showed up well in attack [29 metres made off 10 carries] while van der Flier made one incision that forced Exeter to concede a hasty penalty.
In defence, the pair combined for 30 tackles, with the openside contributing 22 of them [many of them of the dominant variety]. On comms duty for BT Sport, Warburton declared:
"How good has Josh van der Flier been in the first half? He's been good all year. That's the scary strength that Leinster have. No Will Connors or Dan Leavy, and you have guys like him stepping up."
Add to his latest showing for Leinster and how good he was in Ireland's Six Nations win over England and, not for the first time, van der Flier is doing his best to make a case to Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
When the Six Nations wrapped up, three weeks ago, Fergus McFadden mentioned van der Flier as a Lions possibility while he said Kelleher could be a sneaky bolter.
After an evening were both fronted up at Sandy Park, both claims don't see that far-fetched at all.