AFTER so pulsating a spectacle as this Heineken Cup semi-final, it is difficult to imagine how the final in Cardiff in just under three weeks will come anywhere close to matching it.
Leinster, of course, will not care an iota if it means they regain the trophy two years on from their crowning glory at Murrayfield but one detects there is still more to come from Joe Schmidt’s side following Saturday’s thrilling encounter at the Aviva Stadium.
A contest of drama, excitement, breath-taking play and deafening noise, this was a clash of the two most recent European champions. And they delivered everything one could wish from a sporting showdown, slugging it out toe-to-toe like heavyweights trading punches like middleweights and dancing like featherweights in equal measures.
It was a game worthy of the final itself yet Leinster’s desire to improve on their unquestionably lethargic start to the semi-final suggests the coming days will be spent trying to improve on an already potent blend of at times spellbinding rugby.
Losing the first two line-outs on their own throw, getting pinged on their first scrum feed, dropping the ball and conceding a try to Florian Fritz off a rebounded penalty attempt, all in the first five minutes against Toulouse, will give Joe Schmidt plenty to motivate hisplayers on the training ground.
But even the Leinster head coach admitted: “It’s hard to stay too grumpy with the team when they showed the character that they did.”
To hold their nerve at 0-7 down, get back into the game through the unerring boot of Jonathan Sexton and then go in front at 11-10 with a Jamie Heaslip try in the following 25 minutes was the stuff of immense character and no little skill as Leinster laid siege to the Toulouse line through phase after phase against a backdrop of ear-splitting din from the vast majority of the 50,073 crowd.
To then do it all over again following the sin-binning of Brian O’Driscoll in the 37th minute, during which time Toulouse went back in front with a Louis Picamoles converted try having trailed 16-13 at the half, was even more impressive.
Yet it was more than just heart that allowed Leinster to keep coming back into this contest. They had game too.
With the early wobble behind them, and once a platform was delivered, Leinster moved the ball around superbly and stretched an excellent Toulouse defence to its limits, Gordon D’Arcy the first to penetrate the red line before the defending champions started getting penalised at ruck time by referee Dave Pearson.
“We had issues with our rucks, we didn’t know how to deal with different situations and I would say that, despite two tries, Leinster knew how to capitalise on our mistakes and they deserved their win,” veteran Toulouse coach Guy Noves admitted.
“We showed great resolve and great organisation but when it came down to it we lost in the details. When I talk about details, I mean in the tackle, a lack of support for the player in the tackle and another issue was holding the ball for too long and as a result we were penalised for this and this proved to be important in the long run. The details ... were important three or four times for us.”
Argentine lock Patricio Albacete provided one such “detail” at the breakdown on the stroke of half-time, which was suitably punished by Sexton on a perfect day’s kicking for the Leinster fly-half with the fourth of eight successful kicks, two of them conversions, to push his side into a 16-13 interval lead. Continuing with 14 men at the restart, O’Driscoll’s absence was felt when the immaculate Toulouse captain and flanker Jean Bouilhou side-footed the ball out of the scrum to scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain who ploughed through opposite number Eoin Reddan before off-loading to Louis Picamoles.
The No.8 was left to exploit a huge gap in the Leinster line left by Sean O’Brien who was tangling with Yannick Nyanga. The Irish flanker appeared to floor his adversary in the act of releasing himself and while Nyanga played no further part in the match, O’Brien will have a nervous wait for the citing deadlines to pass to see how the rest of his season pans out.
Toulouse’s strength in depth was all too apparent when Nyanga was replaced by France captain Thierry Dusautoir but it was Leinster’s substitutions that tipped the balance. Loosehead Cian Healy was replaced, initially as a blood substitution, by Heinke Van der Merwe, after the Irish prop had set the stadium alight with a rollicking run upfield and into the corner having broken off from medical treatment to join the move.
Van Der Merwe more than filled the breach. Healy’s run had ended with an accidental offside from Leinster and the subsequent scrum saw the home side demolish the renowned Toulouse pack. Referee Pearson blew his whistle and Sexton drilled over the penalty from the right touchline for a 22-20 Leinster lead.
Isaac Boss had also come on with Van Der Merwe in the 53rd minute and the replacement scrum-half then took his turn to make his presence felt, bringing fresh zip behind the Leinster pack as the home side once again camped on the Toulouse line. Step forward O’Driscoll, back to make amends for his yellow card, receiving a crisp, skip pass from Boss and losing Vincent Clerc before sidestepping Census Johnston for his 30th Heineken Cup try.
Game over, and last year’s painful semi-final defeat in Toulouse avenged, although at 29-20 there was still time for some important defensive work, not least from full-back Isa Nacewa. He reeled in replacement Gregory Lamboley with a last-ditch tackle that was then brilliantly turned over by man of the match Heaslip.
Nicolas Bezy, on for David Skrela, slotted a penalty to give Toulouse hope with four minutes to go but it was only proper Leinster should have the last laugh. The clock had already clicked over into the 80th minute when Pearson awarded a penalty. Sexton went for goal to bring a perfect end to an almost perfect afternoon.
LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden, 57-68 blood substitution); J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss, 53); C Healy (H Van Der Merwe, 53), R Strauss, M Ross (S Wright, 74); L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin (S Jennings, 53), S O’Brien, J Heaslip
Replacements not used: J Harris-Wright, D Toner, I Madigan
Yellow card: O’Driscoll, 37-47.
TOULOUSE: C Heymans; V Clerc, F Fritz (Y Jauzion, 60), C Poitrenaud, M Medard; D Skrela (N Bezy, 68), J Doussain; J-B Poux (D Human, 46), W Servat (V Lacombe, 78), C Johnston (J Falefa, 68); Y Maestri (G Lamboley, 60), P Albacete; J Bouilhou (capt), Y Nyanga (T Dusautoir, 46), L Picamoles (S Sowerby, 65).
Referee: D Pearson (England).
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