Sport retains the capacity to cut even the best of players and teams down to size, writes Donal Lenihan
Nine days after delivering one of the most rounded and clinical performances the revamped Champions Cup has seen, a reminder for Leinster yesterday that they, just like New Zealand, are beatable after all.
A sign of the times in the changing fortunes of these two European giants that Toulouse started this game with a quota of relative unknowns compared to the 13 Irish internationals, the Wallaby and Maori All Black which made up Leinster’s starting team.
Toulouse may be without European Cup success since 2010 but the manner in which they started yesterday’s absorbing game at the Stade Ernest Wallon against the holders suggested nothing had changed since the days when they would swat Irish opposition aside for fun.
This electric one-point win in a contest that was frenetic from start to finish, offers hope to all other sides with genuine aspirations of lifting a Champions Cup next May. No doubt, given the experienced leadership within the playing and coaching staff in Leinster, they will learn from this setback and come back stronger.
For whatever reason, Leinster were slow out of the blocks and failed to impose their high tempo game with any degree of success in an amazing opening 20 minutes when the host scorched into a 14-0 lead.
Toulouse were clearly up for this. That is what happens when reigining champions come to town. It has been a while since I’ve seen Toulouse and, of equal importance, the Toulouse crowd so animated. They succeeded in getting their big ball carriers up front in captain Julien Marchand, Charlie Faumunia, Joe Tekori and Selevasio Tolofua consistently over the gain line to the extent that suspended All Black Jerome Kaino was barely missed.
Leinster just couldn’t get any foothold in the game yet, with meagre rations of possession, they managed to claw their way back into the contest when their experience and patience created a try for the returning Sean O’Brien after magnificent work from his fellow back rower Jack Conan.
Leinster’s trump card against all French opposition in recent times has been their ability to take the big French packs out of their comfort zone, playing at a pace and intensity that inevitably forces their bigger opponents to wilt.
That is exactly what they set out to do when starting the second half eight points in arrears. A try from the indefatigable James Ryan from a lineout maul followed by another through the direct running and explosive pace of Sean Cronin served to remind the partisan Toulouse following that this Leinster side is packed with serious game breakers.
From eight points in arrears at the break to six ahead with 11 minutes remaining, it appeared that Leinster had ridden the storm. Not so. For the second week in a row veteran French winger Maxime Medard - he who knocked the ball out of Freddie Burns hands in the act of scoring that secured the unlikely win in Bath in round one - proved the hero.
A Luke McGrath intercept at one end of the field, unleashed a sequence of passing reminiscent of Toulouse at their best, resulting in Medard scoring in the corner. The touchline conversion from Thomas Ramos pushed Toulouse into the narrowest of leads which they just about managed to protect. The neutrals will say its great for the competition even if, I suspect, it will also serve to make Leinster stronger.
anaging expectations is always a challenge. Leo Cullen was well aware of that after the highs the Wasps performance. Johann van Graan also faced the flip side on that barometer coming into Munster’s game on Saturday at home to Gloucester. In their opening game, it was widely accepted that a losing bonus point, away to Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs, would represent a good days work for Munster.
It always helps when teams surpass the anticipated benchmark. In advance of Saturday’s game a win, laced with a four-try bonus point, was widely anticipated primarily on the back of home advantage.
That doesn’t happen automatically, however. You have to make it happen. The nature of Munster’s sloppy and inaccurate start to the match set you wondering. Are their heads in the right place? Letting the kick off from Danny Cipriani bounce on the back of no clear call from a Munster forward, which immediately handed possession and the initiative to the visitors, suggested otherwise.
An overthrow and turnover at the first Munster lineout only served to further that impression as did a knock on in the tackle by CJ Stander deep in the Gloucester twenty two. Those events did little to alter my initial concerns. The only bright spark came via two trademark Tadhg Beirne turnovers in advantagous position for the Cherry and Whites.
To win in Thomond Park, you have to show a capacity to not only compete up front but be able to match the physical intensity Munster invariably bring in contact. Gloucester were clearly aware of that but in attempting to impose themselves, lost their discipline.
A yellow card for second row Tom Savage after a dangerous clean out offered Munster the opportunity to get back into the game, which they grabbed with both hands courtesy of a well-worked try out wide for Mike Haley.
Having impressively negotiated that ten-minute spell by only conceding a net two points - a Cipriani penalty to Haley’s unconverted try - Gloucester made it clear they were not for backing down. Then the incident that altered the course of the game 28 minutes in.
World Rugby is on a crusade at present, trying to eradicate the high tackle from the game. That message has been communicated loud and clear to players and coaches alike. Yet old habits die hard. The red card issued to Cipriani, after his shoulder made contact with Rory Scannell’s face, left referee Alexandre Ruiz with no choice but to send off the mercurial out-half. Game over.
It was a harsh call in some respects in that he was attempting to pull out of the tackle at the time after his prop Rapava Ruskin made the initial hit, which was also high, around Scannell’s neck. However, the responsibility and duty of care sits with the tackler and Cipriani was too upright going into contact.
There are going to be many decisions like this which will impact greatly on the outcome of games until the message finally gets across. In the interim be prepared for chaos. If anything Gloucester were lucky to survive a second red card after yet another high tackle by Billy Twelvetrees on Joey Carbery.
The inevitable happened as early as the 56th minute when Sammy Arnold dotted down for the four-try bonus point which was a foregone conclusion once Cipriani departed the scene. Having looked somewhat vulnerable in a disjointed opening quarter, Munster were more than happy to capitalise on the indiscipline and recklessness of the visitors.
To their credit, Gloucester showed enough in adversity, with three excellent second half tries, to suggest that the return fixture at Kingsholm in round five will be feisty. Ultimately Munster’s second-half performance left more questions than answers, not to mention a series of worrying injuries.
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