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Saturday 3 December 2016

Brent Pope: Leinster can now afford to embrace change

Devin Toner (c) after Saturday’s Champions Cup defeat by Toulon Photo:Sportsfile
Devin Toner (c) after Saturday’s Champions Cup defeat by Toulon Photo:Sportsfile

After all the "what ifs" and different scenarios being talked about this week, Leinster can officially say goodbye to European rugby. At least coach Leo Cullen can now concentrate on the Guinness Pro12 and hopefully develop a team that in the future can compete with the big boys.

For 40 brave minutes on Saturday night, Leinster showed that on their day, they can still dine at Europe's top table with a first-half display of innovation and commitment.

Desperately searching for their first win in this year's campaign, the home side started with real tempo and verve. Recalled Leinster and Irish scrumhalf Eoin Reddan was the main catalyst for everything Leinster were doing well, continuing to mix the game up and deny Toulon their traditional power-based, forward-dominated game.

Referee Wayne Barnes was also doing his part in keeping Leinster in the hunt by penalising the Toulon loose forwards, especially at the breakdown where Leinster were so much more clinical than they had been a week earlier in the South of France.

Leinster's line out was also well on top in the early stages, with Devin Toner again causing Toulon's considerably shorter lineout all sorts of problems out of touch.

But it was at the breakdowns where the Blues were most dynamic; clearing out effectively and not allowing the likes of Steffan Armitage time to bridge over the ball. It was the Leinster back row that had now become the poachers.

Leinster's defence and line speed was aggressive and effective, and the big difference in Leinster's game plan was in their kick and chase game where the likes of Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa in particular exposed Toulon's back three by forcing them to constantly track back.

In fact Nacewa was at times inspirational in his risky defensive duties. If a neutral had been watching this game for the first 30 minutes they would have presumed it was the home side that had the massive budget and to be honest after a penalty try from a maul and then a number of pinpoint kicks at goal Leinster had a more than healthy cushion at half time.

Toulon were struggling. They continued to miss golden opportunities by spilling the ball and their only real threat in the first spell had been a well taken try by the man of the match, Springbok Juan Smith.

Different

Cue the second half, and a whole different ball game. Suddenly, the rift between the teams became more evident. Leinster never really threatened the Toulon line at all in the second spell, as the French side brought their power to bear.

Leinster just could not get the ball back, as their tackle count started to take its toll on the lighter Blues pack. Leinster's scrum began to struggle, as it did last week, and as a result and with the help of Barnes' constant stream of set play penalties Toulon managed to lay siege to Leinster's 22 and pick off the lead.

Despite owning almost 100% of the ball, last year's European Champions were still making a mess of what seemed like numerous scoring opportunities. The lack of a fourth try may come back to haunt them in this pool.

Australia and Toulon winger Drew Mitchell raised his hands in apology after he dropped a ball with a three-man overlap and the line open in front of him. A minute later the same player was bundled out in the corner when replacement Leinster hooker Sean Cronin performed the heroics by sliding the winger's foot over the touch line in a desperate defensive tackle.

Cronin nearly became the villain in the very next play after throwing over the back of the lineout only to see big South African No 8 Vermullian seemingly crash over. The TMO showed that Cronin had in fact denied another almost certain Toulon try by getting his hand under the ball.

But it was now finger in the dyke stuff, as every time Leinster escaped they turned the ball back over to Toulon who just walked back into their 22- it was death by slow strangulation.

Johnny Sexton left the field and it appeared that he was being replaced rather than injured, given the look on his face. Jamie Heaslip soon followed and Cullen was right - if Leinster were to have any chance then fresh legs were needed, especially given the strength of the Toulon bench.

Heaslip looked drained, physically and mentally. It was hard to see how Leinster would score let alone stay in the match, and the scoreline probably flattered Leinster a bit given the second half landslide.

Despite finishing just a score behind, Leinster really could have no gripes about the result. They had, in fairness, given it everything. Cullen will have seen some excellent individual performances from the likes of Toner and Ruddock up front and Reddan and Nacewa in the backline.

In some regards the pressure is off and Leinster rugby can now officially embrace the transitional phase of their development. The interesting thing will be can they hold onto the likes of Ian Madigan?

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