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Friday 20 September 2019

Experience tells as Toulouse denied by rejuvenated Blues

SPECIAL TALENT: James Lowe of Leinster celebrates. Pic: Sportsfile
SPECIAL TALENT: James Lowe of Leinster celebrates. Pic: Sportsfile

After Saracans' demolition of Munster on Saturday, and a pretty lacklustre Six Nations Championship by Ireland, most of the country were hoping that one Irish province would be represented in another Heineken Cup final.

Yesterday, that responsibility lay fully with Leinster. In the end we shouldn't have broken sweat. Leinster were never really troubled and, as I suspected, had too much experience for a Toulouse side that was unsure as to what game to play.

In fairness, it was Toulouse who started the better, playing exactly the way Leinster expected them to, giving the ball plenty of width and trying to bring their outside backs into the game.

After five minutes, their domination resulted in the first score, a penalty to their goal-kicker on the day, Thomas Ramos.

But, as they have done all season, and down a score, Leinster hit back straight away, first with a Sexton penalty, and then a super finish by flying Leinster winger James Lowe.

Lowe is everything good about Leinster rugby, with his infectious spirit and his uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. The Kiwi who will play for Ireland one day still had a lot to do but he made it look easy and enjoyable.

Difference

Again, the difference in the game as a whole was that Toulouse had to work so hard for their points, while Leinster seemed to make so many inroads easily.

Leinster's greater experience was showing in other ways than on the scoresheet, and just when match referee Wayne Barnes seemed to miss Richie Gray's ill-disiplined hand on the ball penalty,it was the experienced Sean O'Brien who pleaded with the referee to have another look at it.

The result was that Grey was off the field for 10 minutes, and Leinster struck immediately, opting to kick for the corner rather than at goal, and then mauling over for another try. It was a lead they would never religuish.

There was also a difference in the psychological approach to the match,and while Leinster played to the corner when Toulouse were down to 14 men, in the same situation when Robbie Henshaw was yellowed-carded Toulouse took the points. They didn't back themselves, they were not confident enough to push for the try. Leinster did and that was the difference in the teams' mental approach.

What Toulouse were doing leaving their young and talented out-half Romaine N'Tamack on the bench was a mystery and it backfired.

Toulouse needed stability early in the game, and without a specialist out-half, they at times looked rudderless.

On 45 minutes, Toulouse again made a fatal error. Behind in the game and desperately needing points , they should have at least had a kick at goal but Ramos simply didn't fancy it, and any chance of bridging the gap was lost, especially when they coughed up the ball after kicking for touch.

The visitors really needed to score early in the second spell to have any realistic chance of putting Leinster under pressure but they couldn't find a way to the try line.

On the other hand, Leinster just kept chipping away, taking their points when on offer, and always leaving a decent margin between the sides.

Leinsters defence was excellent, and they just did not allow Toulouse any space in which to play. In fact, so good was the home defence that they pushed Toulouse into playing a game that suited Leinster, forcing them into trying to offload when it was too late.

In France, Toulouse are often afforded so much space that they can show their talents, but Leinster took that space from them and pressured them into playing a structured game they were not used to.

They had no Plan B, no other way to play. Scott Fardy's try eventually sealed a Leinster win after the slight threat of a small comeback by the visitors.

And with that try, they now have a real chance in three weeks to become the best side that Europe has ever produced.

Johnny Sexton was back to the Sexton of old, and Joe Schmidt will be delighted at Sexton's uncanny ability to put Leinster in all the good parts of the field, plus his goal-kicking.

Excite

Other players to excite the home crowd were home wingers Lowe and Jordan Larmour.

The Leinster front five were, to a man, magnificent, especially prop Cian Healy, whose clean-out work at ruck time for a prop was responsible for Ireland's dominance in the collision areas.

In the end , Leinster simply know how to produce when they need to. Leinsters final opponents, Saracens, will be a more rugby intelligent team that Toulouse, and Leinster will be away from home as well.

It's a tough final to call at this stage,and injuries over the next two weeks or so may play their part.

But in the end, this was an utterly convincing win from a side that oozes confidence.

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