FOR Leinster the dream of a domestic and European double still burns brightly after another classic Heineken Cup semi-final in Dublin.
For Munster, alas, that cherished ambition evaporated in the heat at Thomond Park in the Amlin semi-final.
Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins were offered a licence to play and accepted it gratefully.
The challenge of retaining the Heineken Cup proved a step too far for Toulouse who, despite all their achievements in Europe, have never managed back-to-back successes. That said, reports of their demise have been clearly exaggerated — from the start they made it very clear they had come to Dublin to play. The fact that Leinster were strong favourites for a contest of this nature challenged their honour, and Toulouse responded in kind.
That makes Leinster’s achievement in securing a nine-point victory all the more special. Should they go on to win the final against Northampton, when once again they will have to deal with the favourites tag, it will mean all the more for beating Toulouse en route.
Leinster have now accounted for the reigning French and English champions, Clermont Auvergne and Leicester, on their triumphant march through Europe this season and to add Toulouse to that list of scalps in a semi-final as competitive, abrasive and intriguing as Saturday’s, augurs well for one last herculean effort.
For the first time in a big competitive game this year, Leinster looked burdened by the weight of expectation in front of a massive blue army of support. The manner in which Toulouse controlled possession and unveiled their famed off-loading game right from the start certainly unsettled Leinster — as did the concession of a try in the third minute after one of the unkindest bounces I have seen in an in-goal area.
With Leinster also losing their first two lineout throws, questions that hadn’t been asked since this fixture last year began to resurface. However, that’s when champion teams respond and show their mettle. Leinster certainly did that with all their big guns producing. They could also take comfort in the fact that their scrum, which had been decimated by Toulouse last May, was in far better order this time around.
All season Isa Nacewa has been magnificent in attack, mesmerizing defenders and creating havoc with ball in hand. On Saturday he met a crop of like-minded individuals in Vincent Clerc, Cedric Heymans, Maxime Medard and Clement Poitrenaud who were equally creative. They have played together for so long they could find each other in the dark. As a result, Nacewa found himself in a defensive mode more often than not but showed that he is equally adept on that front, making two crucial try-saving tackles.
Not for the first time this season, referee Dave Pearson made some strange decisions and the sin-binning of Brian O’Driscoll five minutes before half time was very harsh. One could argue that O’Driscoll didn’t retreat through the gate but he only entered the contact area after being pushed in the back by Toulouse’s Louis Picamoles. The fact that Leinster were able to absorb that blow and still lead at the break says everything about the character and resilience in their side at present.
IT helps when the big players step up on the big occasion and in this respect Jamie Heaslip produced his most complete and committed performance for some time. His opportunist try, when he somehow managed to free his hand and just about make the line, was crucial as was the turnover he snaffled metres from his goal-line late in the game. That was inspirational and triggered an immediate response from over 45,000 Leinster supporters who instinctively rose in acclaim. You just cannot quantify the effect that moments like that have on a side.
For years Leinster were known for their flamboyance in attack but vulnerability under pressure. Those days are long gone and the characteristic that defines them now is their honesty. They clearly love playing for each other, have fully bought into the changes that Joe Schmidt has introduced and trust each other implicitly in defence. That makes them very difficult to beat.
Schmidt also deserves huge credit for his match day management where once again the use and timing of his replacements was both crucial and tactically astute. The introduction of Isaac Boss, Heinke Van Der Merwe and Shane Jennings had a big bearing on Leinster’s ability to close out the game. Not so long ago the ability to spring seasoned internationals off the bench was the sole preserve of Toulouse. Even on that front they have now been trumped.
The fact that a side as good as Toulouse gave it their best shot but couldn’t quite pull it off provides the ultimate satisfaction. The turnaround in Leinster’s fortunes since that semi-final defeat twelve months ago was best exemplified in the performance of Cian Healy. Forced to bury his head in his track suit topafter being withdrawnbefore half-time in that game, he departed on this occasion after making a 30m break with Toulouse defenders trailing in his slipstream. Of more satisfaction to him will be the fact that he stood up to the test of Census Johnston in the scrummaging battle to such a degree that when called ashore on this occasion in the 53rd minute, he could do so with his head held high. He was not alone. On the final whistle it was a feeling that everyone in blue was entitled to experience after negotiating one of the great semi-finals in the history of the tournament.
Munster’s emotions on the final whistle in Thomond Park were somewhat different. Conor O’Shea will have every reason to remember this particular journey home to the city of his birth when Munster lost for only the second time in their proud European history. Harlequins are a young side with talent and ambition and this was a day when inexperience was no burden.
The opening half was a nightmare with Munster forced to perform without possession or field position. Of even greater concern was the fact that Harlequins completely dominated the contact area. Only for an incredible defensive effort from Munster and the fact that Nick Evans left his kicking boots at home, Harlequins would have been out of sight by the break.
Not for the first time this season Munster’s lineout misfired and after a very promising sequence of nine consecutive victories, Munster never turned up for this contest. The biggest shock is that they were physically blown away by a team not renowned for its physicality. This game was lost in the head —Munster never came to terms with the demands of the occasion.
The Magners League is a must-win now.
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