Revitalised Toulouse pose massive threat to Leinster’s title hopes

Tyler Bleyendaal during Munster Rugby Squad Training at University of Limerick in Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Four stunning quarter-finals, three of which were decided by a single score, made for a sensational weekend of Champions Cup rugby. The tournament delivered big time on the hype and expectation and guarantees even greater television audiences for the semi-final clashes on the Easter weekend.

Despite those tight, nerve-wracking wins for Munster and Leinster, the game of the round has to be that incredible win for a rejuvenated Toulouse against last season’s runners up, Racing 92. The hosts could hardly have enjoyed a more telling advantage given how the Paris La Defense Arena is so different to any other venue in the tournament.

Quite how the EPCR had agreed to allow a supposedly neutral home-based semi-final be staged there had Racing advanced takes a bit of explaining when you consider that their choice for last year’s equivalent against Munster in France was Bordeaux. In any event, Toulouse’s stunning victory put paid to that eventuality. Leinster will be thrilled with that outcome as they now avoid a trip to Paris in favour of another saunter down the road to Lansdowne Road from the RDS. Admittedly, it is hardly a neutral venue either but technically it is not their home ground.

This win -despite losing playmaker Zach Holmes to a 22nd-minute red card for a clumsy high tackle on Juan Imhoff,- shows how far this exciting young Toulouse side has come in a year.

Last season, they didn’t even make the Champions Cup, banished instead to the Challenge Cup having failed to qualify through the French Top 14. They didn’t even make the quarter-finals of that tournament, winning just two of their six pool matches.

This season however they have rediscovered the class and swagger associated with the club when they were winning Heineken Cups for fun. Having already beaten Leinster in the pool stages when they hosted them in a classic 28-27 affair at the Stade Ernest Wallon, they will pose a real threat to Leinster’s title aspirations, even in Dublin.

Leinster will be better and stronger next time out given more lead time to prepare. Leo Cullen should also be able to call on Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner but will be shattered to have lost Dan Leavy to a horrible knee injury. That blow will also have a major impact on Ireland’s World Cup aspirations given just how big a loss Leavy proved during the Six Nations. While Joe Schmidt is well stocked in terms of back up in Josh Van Der Flier, Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, none matched the sustained excellence Leavy brought to Irish rugby’s trophy-laden march through 2018.

With Van Der Flier also out of commission for the remainder of the season and O’Brien struggling for form, both Cullen and Schmidt will hope that the Carlow stalwart will step up to the mark over the next few weeks.

In Sexton’s absence, Ross Byrne was superb last Saturday, displaying incredible grit and determination to see Leinster over the line.

He has to be back on Schmidt’s radar for the World Cup after losing out to Jack Carty in Ireland’s Six Nations squad. Likewise, Jack Conan was outstanding against Ulster and contributed some real moments of class. He has closed the gap on CJ Stander for Ireland’s No 8 jersey and what looked like a pretty settled Irish side just three months ago now has several places up for grabs. Schmidt will have more than a passing interest in those two fascinating semi-finals in Coventry and Dublin.

For Munster, despite performing well short of their best on Saturday, the European journey continues. This great tournament really does bring out the best in the team and their travelling army of fans. As the second of two early morning charters bound for Edinburgh left Cork airport at 7am, the bristling magic of European rugby was there for all to see.

At the same time in Shannon and Dublin airports, the routine was replicated. Giddy men, women and children of all ages looking forward to another epic European outing. Some are doing this for over 20 years in the lead up to Munster’s first Heineken Cup final appearance in Twickenham in 2000. The support Munster continue to attract never ceases to amaze, especially on days like this.

That said, there was a universal acceptance in the aftermath of the win in Murrayfield that Munster’s performance would be insufficient to worry a high flying Saracens team.

Their seven-try demolition of Glasgow was being boomed out on large screens in the background as hundreds of Munster fans congregated outside the dressing rooms to clap each and every player onto the team coach two hours after the game.

Their energy and enthusiasm could not have been greater had Munster won the Champions Cup there and then. The quality of performance unfolding on those giant screens was just about as far from the minds of the Munster players as possible as they savoured another special European day.

There’ll be plenty of time for the squad and management to analyse Saracens. At that point, it was all about enjoying the moment, having delivered yet another semi-final date. The big challenge now is to find a way of surmounting that penultimate hurdle, having lost six on the trot since Munster last lifted the trophy in 2008.

The game against Edinburgh was always going to be extremely challenging. It says something about the strides they have made since Richard Cockerill’s arrival that of the five forwards named on his bench on Saturday, four had started for Scotland in the Six Nations while the fifth, hooker Ross Ford, is a British and Irish Lion and Scotland’s most experienced player with 110 caps.

The key difference between the sides was that Munster, despite stuttering their way through the game, knew that only one chance was needed to win it. When it arrived, they were ready to pounce, even if fortune also played its part.

Firstly the reversed penalty call against Edinburgh loosehead Pierre Schoeman was an act of stupidity on the part of the South African prop. Secondly, the lineout delivery resulting from Tyler Bleyendaal’s sumptuous penalty kick was intended for Tadhg Beirne at the tail but was overthrown by Rhys Marshall.

Bleyendaal reacted faster than anyone in the opposition ranks when pouncing on the overthrow, 15 metres infield, which set up an unexpected blindside for Munster to exploit. Conor Murray recognised this immediately and, three passes later, Keith Earls extracted the maximum reward. Blayentaal’s superb touchline conversion thrust another stake in Edinburgh hearts.

From there, Munster closed the game down aided by a brilliant rip by Arno Botha on Viliame Mata and another invaluable steal by Billy Holland as Munster’s bench made a telling contribution. Saracens will be difficult to overcome but their victory over Glasgow came at a cost with a nasty ankle injury to their captain Brad Barrett. In a team packed with star performers, it’s the nuts and bolts that he brings to the fight that enables so much to happen and others to flourish. He is also their defensive leader. He will be missed.

Not for the first time, Munster will have to defy the odds to make it to the final in Newcastle with Saracens now the bookies favourites, ahead of Leinster, to win the tournament outright. The manner with which they dispatched Glasgow justifies that call, even if Munster are sure to offer a stubborn resistance. The question remains as to whether that will be enough?

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