I know we played Toulouse just last season but for our latest TT I thought it best to go back a bit further to 2019 when we met them in the final four having already played them home and away in the pool phase.
Defeat by 17 in Edinburgh. Narrow 3-point win over a determined Ulster side at the Aviva. Failure to win at the RDS for two successive Saturdays.
That’s not exactly the kind of run we Leinster fans have gotten used to over the years, and coming as it did right after Ireland’s disappointment in Cardiff to round out the Six Nations, we’d be forgiven for having our expectation levels set at ‘apprehensive’ going into this Easter Sunday battle with our fellow four-star bearers.
But if our experience under the Cullen/Lancaster ticket has taught us anything, it’s that they know how to dig deep and find our A game when a big occasion demands it of them. And there was a hint of that in the run I mention above because on the one day the result actually meant something to Leinster’s season, we managed to find a way to win.
But with all due respect to our northern cousins, this semifinal was a step up again. Three of our titles have been won since Toulouse earned their fourth, yet this season they were starting to show that kind of form again, as we saw ourselves back in October, and the entire Top 14 has seen throughout the domestic campaign.
It was pretty clear that if there was even a hint of the lack of accuracy on Sunday that we had shown in recent weeks, we would be punished. And while we have been welcoming a host of our ‘elite’ squad members back to the first team lately, it was essential that they hit the ground running.
What a curious opening spell it was. For the first ten minutes we had only about three phases of possession, while our guests had built series of 6, 8 and 9 – yet thanks to our stringent defence, we came out of it with the scores level at 3-3.
Then came the game’s first major unforced error, when Toulouse’s full back Thomas Ramos put his restart over our end line giving us a scrum at halfway.
We had an earlier put in but it resulted in a free kick which Conan tapped quickly, so after twelve whole minutes we finally found ourselves in an attacking situation, or to put it another way, we had an opportunity to show the rest of Europe just how able we were to put the previous four weeks behind us.
What followed gave everyone the answer and then some. 10 well-thought out phases, with carries accompanied by good clear-outs, gain-lines broken regularly, offloads timed to perfection especially by Cian Healy, and eventually James Lowe, who probably wouldn’t have featured had Jamison Gibson-Park been fit, showed his usual mix of pace, strength and determination to get the ball down.
Now we know for sure which Leinster team has turned up. The only question left that needed answering was could the French outfit raise their game to meet us.
For me, that had already been answered. In that first pool meeting in round 2, they threw the kitchen sink at us and prevailed by just one point. In the return fixture in January, I felt they tried to adjust their game to knock us off our stride and failed badly.
Here I think they may have been guilty yet again of showing us too much respect. To be fair, they were without Zach Holmes and Ntamack was carrying a knock, but for me if an out half is good enough for the bench he should be good enough to start.
Antoine Duponte is a pesky scrum half who can definitely out shine his 10 on occasion and having impressed against Racing in the quarterfinals, there was definitely a case for him to do a job in the playmaker role.
But while we were setting about finding our best game, they appeared to be hell bent on tinkering with theirs, and if you’re going to do that on a stage like this one, you have to be absolutely sure it’s going to work. And it didn’t.
A look at Leinster’s defensive charts might raise an eyebrow as ten of our starters were ‘credited’ with more than one missed tackle. But as often is the case when crunching these numbers, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A high percentage of those missed ones were made up for by tackles made by a team mate.
We were generally hunting in groups of two or three, and often the offloads we would expect from Toulouse weren’t forthcoming. Conan led with 18 tackles, both our starting locks had 16 and perhaps most crucially our centres had 25 between them, with one or two by Ringrose proving particularly key.
So attack after attack was being shut down, even when faced by the ridiculous pace and guile of Kolbe, who after a couple of trademark runs made some inroads, grubbered one along the touchline only to be tidied by Jordan Larmour.
In the ensuing play, we had one of those rare moments on a rugby pitch when you can throw the ball forward to a team-mate and it can legally benefit you. I always thought this was an area that needed tidying up in the laws, but I wasn’t complaining when Larmour ran with the ball from behind his try line before chucking it ahead to James Lowe for him to take the drop out.
Always full of confidence to try something to catch the opposition napping, Lowe dinked a mini drop kick to himself and retained possession for us, and when the ball eventually went through the backs, Robbie Henshaw spotted a gaping hole in the Toulouse backfield and booted a monster kick to find touch on the far side of the pitch.
Yoann Huget retrieved the ball and was clearly keen to get keep the tempo moving so he took a quick throw and found Ramos. Maybe the full back had his overcooked restart on his mind, or maybe he was generally affected by not being trusted with the 10 jersey, but whatever the reason he hesitated and his kick was not only charged down, but pretty much the entire Leinster pack smelled blood in the water and eventually a combination of Fardy, Toner and Ryan wrapped him up in his own 22 to force a scrum.
So to summarise, from a situation where Toulouse’s danger man was running at us at pace in our 22, just moments later we had won an attacking set piece way down the other end of the park. Now we needed to go for the kill and turn this territory into more points.
I’m sure Richie Gray has gone over this moment in his mind several times, even after his 10-minute spell on the naughty step. And I actually think he was making a conscious effort to show Wayne Barnes he had no intention of waving his hand at the ball on the floor of the ruck yet his hand did it anyway. So to make matters even worse for his team, we now had an extra man into the bargain.
And with the iron even hotter than the Dublin Easter sun, we struck. Lineout, maul, over the line, Luke McGrath try. Just like that, we’re up by fourteen in a match I thought for sure would never have a margin of more than seven either way.
But here’s the thing – while this was definitely a day when we brought our A game, that doesn’t mean we always showed it. A lineout would go awry here, a carrier would get himself isolated there, and immediately after our second try Devin Toner struggled with the sun in his eyes and knocked on the restart. Time for Toulouse to have the prime attacking position.
And the repetition was to continue when a Leinster hand got in the way of a Toulouse attacking move. While pounding our try line with carry after carry, a pass to their prop Faumuina was swatted at by Robbie Henshaw and Barnes rightly flashed his yellow once more.
Was that a penalty try? There was certainly a case for it. Had the prop taken the ball his run would have gotten him over the line. That said, had he taken the ball then Scott Fardy and Johnny Sexton were in position to get under him. Call me biased if you want but I’m not sure that was a certain try.
But whatever about that debate, there was definitely a big game error from the French outfit when they sent the kicking tee onto the pitch before properly taking in the situation.
Had they considered that it was now 14 v 14 surely a kick to the corner was the way to go, yet they had to make do with just the three points, and despite the clock reaching 46 before the halftime whistle blew (thanks to a James Lowe try that was rightly disallowed for a block by Conan), there was to be no further score in the half.
Notice how long it took me to mention the name of Sexton? And even then it was in a defensive context? That might seem odd seeing how he was named man of the match, but that doesn’t mean I think he was unworthy. It was one of his more understated performances all round, but it was still one that was in stark contrast to the distinctly-less-than-assured outing by his opposite number.
This put the French coaches into one of those halftime quandries…do we leave things as they are and hope they work out or do we make a switch and admit we were wrong? Well they went for the former and the decision got exactly what it deserved when Duponte threw a pass straight into touch on 48m. Whatever out half prowess he had displayed before, he just couldn’t find it on this day.
And from there, Leinster’s ability to work their way to a crucial score kicked in once more. From the lineout following the Duponte error we stretched their defence through 6 phases before Sexton slipped through an immaculate grubber that sat up perfectly in the 22 forcing Kolbe to play it.
Now on an average day, even deep in his own corner, you wouldn’t bet against the Springbok dancing his way down to the other end of the pitch in a matter of seconds, but further proof the writing was on the wall for Toulouse came when that man Ramos mucked things up again by colliding with his team mate and forcing him into touch – suddenly it’s a lineout to Leinster within sight of the try line.
A penalty advantage and a bunch of phases later, this time it was Scott Fardy crashing over, and with nerves of steel his captain Sexton slotted over the crucial extras meaning the visitors now needed three scores to catch up with us.
NOW they make the switch, bringing on Ntamack and moving Duponte back to 9. Gate locked, horse bolted?
Well they did manage to switch on their famed offloading game and it was having an effect, with series of 13 then 11 phases getting them deep into our 22 before Médard, another who surely could/should have started, dinked one over our defensive line only for Garry Ringrose to make a last gasp lunge for the ball and force a simultaneous touch down.
All they could take from the visit was another three points and such was the order of the day. Sexton added another penalty minutes later to restore the lead and was immediately replaced by Ross Byrne, who got his own name on the score sheet with a penalty with minutes to go.
The final fifteen minutes were way more comfortable than anyone could have imagined going into the match. Ironically the last touch of the game went to young Hugh O’Sullivan, on for Luke McGrath in the closing stages, and possibly thanks to the form of James Lowe, set to take part in a European final in a few weeks.
So after a run of disappointing results, Leinster certainly found a way to produce the goods when it mattered. But despite the impressive display, it was clear at times that we had another level to reach for as well, and with Saracens awaiting for us in Newcastle, we will have to find it.
Thankfully we don’t have any season-defining rugby in the meantime – our trip to Belfast next weekend won’t affect either side while our guaranteed first place finish sees us idle the following week.
Meanwhile, Saracens will have two tough Premiership battles against teams with playoff intentions; first they return to the scene of their European semifinal triumph to face Wasps, then they get a chance to make up ground on league leaders Exeter.
I guess you could make arguments both ways on which is the better way to prepare for a major final but this I know – Leinster have proven time and time again that they can shift into the required gear regardless of what has gone before.
There will be no assumptions made by fans ahead of kickoff in Newcastle, but there will most certainly be an abundance of belief. Bring it on. JLP