Heroic Leinster fall at the death to Toulon in thrilling semi-final
Brave Leinster went down to defeat after gripping drama by the Med, losing in extra-time just when it seemed a yellow card for Ali Williams in the sixth minute of injury-time seemed to offer Matt O’Connor’s men hope of a famous upset.
But the 9/2 outsiders were undone by a few moments of madness before the half-time interval of extra-time; firstly, Rob Kearney was penalised after a counter-attack, costing his side three points.
And the Ian Madigan threw an intercept pass with time up on the clock, which Springbok Bryan Habana gobbled up to race gleefully beneath the posts for the first try of a poor game, littered with errors, if brimming of drama.
Back came Leinster then in the second period of extra-time, superbly working a position close to the corner from where they earned a lineout penalty, before driving a maul beneath the posts, Sean O’Brien grounding the ball.
Jimmy Gopperth missed the conversion though; had Leinster not grounded the ball, it may have been a penalty try which would have rendered the conversion a gimme beneath the posts.
It didn’t matter. The ageing champions clung on to keep their title hat-trick hopes alive; Leinster may now have to contemplate a rare season without silverware but at least they had left nothing behind them.
After Jimmy Gopperth, with a drop goal, and Delon Armitage with a last minute long-range penalty, missed opportunities to snatch the win in normal time after the sides had traded four penalties each, extra-time beckoned.
It was the fourth semi-final to go to extra-time and Leinster had the worst start imaginable, turning over in midfield and then conceding a scrum penalty which allowed Leigh Halfpenny to draw first blood in the 4th minute of the first period.
Halfpenny landed on his backside but the kick landed between the posts. In keeping with the tenor of the game, though, Toulon conceded virtually from the restart, Jocelino Suta done for holding Richardt Strauss at a maul.
The crowd roared their disapproval; most of the 35,116 were silenced when Madigan’s kick sailed between the posts.
From the restart, Devin Toner was taken out in the air by Ali Williams; Wayne Barnes went to the TMO to inspect any foul play; he decreed there was and the veteran Kiwi was binned.
It was a huge moment and one from which Leinster needed to extract the maximum punishment. But they messed up a lineout maul and Toulon breathed a momentary sigh of relief.
After they cleared, Rob Kearney attempted a counter-attack but, as they prepared a clearance kick, the Toulon ground troops advanced, led by Chris Masoe, and secured the turnover.
Halfpenny’s kick, from midway between halfway and the 10-metre line, just cleared the posts and, once again, they were ahead with just seconds left on the clock.
Toulon were content to hold on to the ball but Leinster thieved it just inside their own half; with the clock gone red, Ian Madigan sensed glory with a millions dollar pass.
In the end, the result was gory. Bryan Habana sniffed the chance and, once the pill settled in his oxter, the try was inevitable; Halfpenny converted and, in an instant, the game was up, despite O’Brien’s stunning riposte after the interval.
Few would argue that they didn’t deserve to go so close after slugging it out with the champions toe-to-toe for the entire 100 minutes.
There was an early scare from Leinster when a Freddy Michalak up and under caused havoc on their goal-line, first Fergus McFadden dropping the ball before Rob Kearney struggled to ground it.
Chris Masoe thought he had scored but after a lengthy intervention via the TMO, he was decreed to have been offside; Toulon had been playing with a penalty advantage and Leigh Halfpenny ensured it brought early profit.
Three minutes later, Toulon’s defence was flapping in the air as Bryan Habana fumbled in the air on his 22 under good chasing pressure from Jordi Murphy; Halfpenny and Matt Giteau held prolonged discussions before the latter hacked clear.
However, his kick was poor and, as Cian Healy trapped it about 30 yards from the line, Bakkies Botha committed the first of his three first-half penalties by playing the ball offside.
Ian Madigan confidently levelled the scores and, with encouragement coming from a scrum penalty success and later two successive lineout thieves, Leinster took a 6-3 lead in the 17th minute when Chris Masoe was pinged for not supporting his bodyweight during an attempted pilfer.
Botha’s second penalty concession in the 21st minute allowed Leinster to lead 9-3 and, although Jimmy Gopperth kicked two restarts dead, they were making less mistakes than the home side.
Toulon’s brawn was preventing their brains from engaging and Leinster were applying the smarter tactics, albeit a lapse in concentration in the scrum put the away side under pressure.
Cian Healy was then penalised for going off his feet on the half-hour mark which Halfpenny punished; by this stage Steffon Armitage had arrived for the injured Juan Smith.
The error count from both sides was accelerating and it was difficult to believe that these were two sides brimming with international talent, not to mention the fact that for five of the last six years one of them has been crowned European champions.
The errors continued in the second-half as Leinster were gifted a lineout and scrum turnover but sloppy spills of their own handed back possession to their opponents; at times, the ball was the biggest enemy.
Toulon opted for conservatism at their next lineout, hitting the front and driving a maul which Leinster illegally brought down; their luck was in though as Halfpenny missed his kick from a difficult angle on the left.
Freddy Michalak, deviating towards the flakier side of his personality of yore, left the scene and was clearly unhappy at his premature removal.
The comedy of errors continued apace; Matt Giteua knocked on McFadden’s high kick, Leinster couldn’t control the scrum, Toulon couldn’t control the turnover and a chargedown from Jimmy Gopperth almost created a try.
However, he couldn’t collect the ball on the ground and the chance was lost.
Toulon were struggling to get a foothold but their fitful scrum offered them an easier chance for Halfpenny to convert – he did so and in the 56th minute the sides were level again in what was now a dogged arm-wrestle.
Space was at a premium; so were ideas.
Leinster brought on Marty Moore before the hour mark and he made an immediate impression, winning a turnover from Mathieu Bastareaud beneath his own posts.
Leinster cleared long and from their second lineout on the 22, Toulon dragged down a maul and Madigan had a chance to make it 12-9 with 16 minutes left – regrettably, he hooked his kick badly on the amateur side.
It summed up the afternoon’s fare. Madigan was then charged down by Guirado but Toulon, haplessly, couldn’t finish.
Leinster unleashed their bench, Toulon unleashed their Wolf; Rudi Wolf crashed up the middle and Jordi Murphy conceded a penalty; Halfpenny nailed it for 12-9 in the 67th minute.
Back Leinster came, a decent Ben Te’o surge produced another phase just inside Toulon’s half and Juan Fernadez Lobbe was pinged at another breakdown, giving Madigan a chance between the halfway and the 10-metre line.
It was a terrific kick, acclaimed by the small pocket of blue-clad supporters behind the goal; 12-12 with ten minutes left and now Leinster could re-adjust their tactics once more.
The tension was intense; Leinster turned over a scrum on their ten-metre line and then produced a stirring penalty against a tiring Toulon pack with seven minutes left.
Gopperth created a lineout chance 25 metres from the line and you felt this was the game ball. Sadly, Richardt Strauss threw the ball crookedly and Toulon won the scrum.
Toulon cleared their lines and then Madigan kicked a ball to touch on the full, ten yards inside their half.
However, Leinster turned the ball over, with Devin Toner superb and another penalty brought them back to the attacking 22.
Gopperth had the chance but his kick drifted just wide. Then Delon Armitage stepped up from a distance he had scored from twice last week but this time he was well short.
Extra-time beckoned. So, grimly, did Leinster’s doughty exit from the European stage.
Toulon 25 Leinster 20
Leinster: Kearney; McFadden (Kirchner 60), Te'o, Madigan (D’Arcy 100), Fitzgerald; Gopperth, Boss (Reddan 64); Healy (McGrath 64), Cronin (Strauss 64), Ross (Moore 58); Toner, McCarthy (Marshall 90), Murphy (Ryan 100), O'Brien, Heaslip (capt).
Toulon: Halfpenny; Armitage, Bastareaud, Giteau, Habana (Mitchell 100); Michalak (Wolf 49),Tillous-Borde; Chiocci (Menini 52), Guirado (Orioli 68), Hayman (Chilachava 75); Botha (Suta 60), Williams; J Smith (S Armitage 35), Fernandez-Lobbe, Masoe.