Toulon 24 Leinster 9
The mathematics may not be definitive just yet, but Leinster’s hopes of making the knockout stages of the Rugby Champions Cup this season ended on the shores of the Mediterranean this evening with a third straight tournament loss.
The visitors gave a gutsy display against Europe’s reigning powerhouses but failed to score for the last 55 minutes and they rarely threatened the Toulon try line on a day when Jonathan Sexton had something of a shocker.
Leinster will surely see this is an opportunity lost as they stymied a less-than-stellar Toulon for much of the game but they continue to frustrate and a complete 80-minute performance continues to look well beyond them.
The Irish province knew that nothing less than victory would suffice having lost their opening pair of outings in Pool 5 – at home to Wasps and away to Bath – if their slim hopes of making the knockout stages were to survive through to next week’s return against Toulon at the Aviva Stadium.
And they recorded the ideal start with two penalties from Sexton – playing his first game in France since his return to Dublin from Racing Metro 92 – giving them a 6-0 lead inside as many minutes and extracting the initial sting from their hosts.
One excellent running exit from their own 22 boded particularly well for their evening, though it was their excellent defence that stood out in a first-half which ended with Toulon shading ten points to nine thanks chiefly to a try from Steffon Armitage.
It emanated from a lineout and a maul that started inside Leinster’s 22 and simply overpowered the visitors after a dozen minutes. With scrum-half Eric Escande adding the conversion, and a penalty ten minutes later, the Top 14 side began to turn the screw.
Leinster’s line speed in defence was superb however and they managed to reduce the gap on the scoreboard to one point after a brilliant wraparound move sent Fergus McFadden free wide on the right and Sexton kicked the penalty after Toulon were pinged for offside.
Still, the visitors didn’t help themselves by committing a handful of unforced errors.
Sexton’s kicking from hand was particularly poor all day and they looked to be in trouble when Cian Healy was sent to the sinbin for a needless late hit on Guilhem Guirado at a ruck.
It was the height of stupidity as the French prop was extricating himself from a ruck at the time and Healy’s rush to the scene saw his knee collide with the prone Frenchman’s head. It didn’t look deliberate but he was fortunate to escape red.
Leinster survived his temporary absence, pilfering and disrupting Toulon’s lineouts and killing them at the breakdown thanks to a number of turnovers despite the presence in the opposing ranks of poacher supreme Steffon Armitage.
Sexton missed a chance to give Leinster the lead when his penalty from the right swung wide shortly after the restart and they conceded six points to Escande’s boot thereafter while Devin Toner served time in the bin for pulling down a maul.
Leinster had already begun to call on the cavalry by the time Toner reappeared but Ian Madigan wasn’t among them despite the fact that Sexton continued to struggle with his both his kicking game and his distribution from the hand.
His own error count was already into double figures come the hour but he stayed on even when Madigan entered the fray, for Luke Fitzgerald, with just three minutes to play and by which time Escande had add another penalty to make it 19-9.
The game was up at that point, Leinster having continued to compete but failing to stretch Toulon going forward and it only remained for Steffon Armitage to have the final sawy when he dived over for the last try in injury-time.
Toulon: D Armitage; B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M Giteau, E Escande; F Florian, G Guirado, M Stevens; S Manoa, R Taofifeuna; M Gorgodze, S Armitage, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: L Chilachava for Stevens (HT); J Smith for Gorgodze and X Chiocci for Fresia (both 52); J Suta for Manoa (54); A Etrillard for Guirado and T Taylor for D Armitage (both 60); M Mermoz for Nonu (70); A Meric for Escabde (77).
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFdden, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.
Replacements: J McGrath for van der Flier (29-39); J McGrath for Healy, S Cronin for Strauss and M Moore for Ross (all 51); E Reddan for Boss (52); T Denton for McCarthy and D Kearney for R Kearney (both 62); J Murphy for van der Flier (70); I Madigan for Fitzgerald (77).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).