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Lowe hat-trick as Leinster defeated Northampton in the Champions Cup semi-final

Dublin (AFP) – James Lowe scored a hat-trick of tries as Leinster survived a late scare to beat Northampton 20-17 at Dublin’s Croke Park on Saturday to reach a third successive Champions Cup final.

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The Irish wing scored twice in four minutes early in the first half in what was effectively a home semi-final for Leinster, who are based on the other side of town in Donnybrook.

Leinster will now look to go one step further after losing the last two Champions Cup finals to La Rochelle, coached by Irish great Ronan O’Gara, when they take on Sunday’s semi-final winners between record five-time European kings Toulouse and Harlequins at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 25.

Four-time European champions Leinster dominated the first forty minutes and led 15-3 at halftime.

And when New Zealand-born Lowe, 31, went over early in the second half, the Irish province were in command 20-3.

But with Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne repeatedly off target from the kick tee, Northampton recovered and when replacement Tom Seabrook scored a converted try six minutes from time they were only three points behind.

However, Leinster captain Caelan Doris sealed the victory when Ireland’s number 8 won a key turnover penalty from a breakdown with a minute remaining.

“We were able to build up a score and then we know that Northampton are a great attacking team,” Lowe told TNT Sports.

“We gave them too many chances and we didn’t kick well.”

Gibson-Park Vision

Lowe said his try treble owed much to the work of Ireland scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park, with the wing insisting only France’s Antoine Dupont could rival him in the position among current players.

“I walked a total of 10 yards for all three,” he said. “There’s a reason why Jamison is the best nine (scrum-half) in the world… He sees space that no one else sees.”

Northampton were without injured captain Lewis Ludlam and winger Ollie Sleightholme, who was sidelined after concussion.

Former England captain Courtney Lawes managed Northampton in Ludlam’s absence.

Leinster’s early dominance was rewarded when they opened the scoring in the 10th minute.

Gibson-Park’s quick tap penalty near the Saints line put Northampton to sleep and his excellent long pass allowed compatriot Lowe to score in the left corner.

Byrne converted and Leinster led 7–0.

Four minutes later, Lowe got a second try.

Byrne made a break and Leinster’s pack then took over the attack with a rolling maul that collapsed within sight of the try line.

But Gibson-Park hit the ball back to Lowe for another try in the corner.

This time Byrne’s conversion hit the left post but Leinster were 12–0 up, to the delight of a crowd of over 82,000.

Leinster were then awarded a scrum penalty, with Byrne making no mistake from close range and extending his side’s lead to 15-0 after half an hour.

Northampton’s first sustained handling move ended with James Ramm knocking on a pass behind him as a try loomed.

But the game was brought back for a penalty, with Fin Smith on target as the Saints finally got on the scoreboard.

However, Lowe completed his hat-trick just three minutes into the second half after a strong run from blindside flanker Ryan Baird.

Byrne’s conversion went wide, but Leinster now led by 17 points.

Northampton hit back with their first try of the match as Leinster failed to deal with George Hendy’s chip over the defense before the wing rallied again to score in the corner.

Smith converted and Northampton had a glimmer of hope trailing 10-20 heading into the final quarter, with Byrne missing a 40-yard penalty that would have put the result beyond doubt.

Byrne’s mistakes were compounded when Northampton substitute Seabrook crossed in the 74th minute after the Saints had punched holes in the Leinster defence, with Smith’s conversion setting up a thrilling finish.