Few stadiums in Europe sit in such spectacular surrounds as Toulon’s Stade Felix Mayol.
Palm trees flutter in the Mediterranean breeze just beyond the walls and the waters of the historic old port can be spied from the faded seats on the upper deck but Leinster were in a grim place when they visited the city in December of 2015.
Opening losses to Wasps, at the RDS, and to Bath at The Rec had left them clinging on to the hope that they could see off the reigning champions in their own back yard and keep alive their hopes of making the knockout stages.
It never looked like happening.
Toulon swept past the province with 15 points to spare. Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Tom Denton all spent time in the sinbin as Leinster racked up 17 penalties o a day when Jonathan Sexton’s tactical kicking was off kilter.
Worse would follow with Wasps putting 51 points on them in the January but that loss in Toulon was the last time Leinster had failed to score a try in European competition until Saturday when, 19 games later, Racing 92 put the squeeze on them so effectively.
It could have been fatal to them.
As in Toulon, Sexton hardly had his most memorable game but this is a very different Leinster side now to then. As with all true champions, they still found a way to get the job done even when so much was conspiring against them.
“I don’t want to watch it back,” said Cian Healy when asked how it was to play in. “I’ll keep a romantic view of it. It was like winning a fight without throwing a punch. We didn’t really get to unleash anything we’d planned. Their defence was rock solid. We had to grind our way. We’ve been trying to play with a lot of flair and a lot of set-plays. But it was nice to be able to do (the other way) as well.
Leinster put Glasgow to the sword twice with some rapier rugby. They matched a massive Montpellier side in the physical stakes and they produced a mix of both to see off Exeter Chiefs in the back-to-back fixtures in December. Saracens and Scarlets had been dispatched with a majesty of efficiency and they were hoping to cap it all off and claim that fourth star by producing some more magic in Bilbao.
Sexton spoke about how they had worn suffocating wet gear in training in Dublin to replicate conditions that were expected to be bright and muggy but the day dawned under black skies and the rain played into Racing’s hands.
Jack Conan called the conditions greasy. Not awful but still unfavourable enough to stop players throwing the sort of five- or 10-metre passes that would prise open a few extra inches on a dry sod. “It hampered our style,” he admitted.
“We didn’t make it easy for ourselves,” said Leo Cullen. “I thought we misfired a little bit. We stuck in there. Credit to them, they found a way. It wasn’t the way we’d have liked to have played but they found a way. It was winning pretty ugly. Maybe that’s what made it more sweet.”
When Teddy Iribaren kicked his fourth penalty to give Racing a 12-9 lead, there were nine minutes left. Leinster had enjoyed as close a thing as there was a purple patch in this game midway through the second period and yet they still trailed.
This wasn’t part of the script but Jack McGrath was one of those who had braced himself for this sort of “slow-burner”.
The loosehead prop was confident their experience, individual and collective, with club and country would serve them well.
“We were all saying, ‘10 minutes, it’s a lifetime’,” said the 28-year old. “We just knew we had to stick in it and we knew we would be able to put them under pressure if we were able to string a few phases together.” Such sequences of fluidity were all too rare though.
Leinster coughed up penalties, missed kicks from the tee and into touch and they struggled at the breakdown and at the lineout. It was the kind of day that would have made the blood boil for years to come had they finished on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
“They were frustrating parts of the day,” said Seán Cronin.
“Everyone is relieved and delighted that we got over the line. It would have been very unfortunate if we lost, especially considering some of the performances we put in during the campaign.
“It would have been a big killer for us.”
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