Wednesday 17 January 2018

Brent Pope: Leinster can hold heads high

Sean O'Brien
Sean O'Brien

In terms of scintillating action, and creative play this game stuttered along, but as a good old-fashioned European slugfest it was nailbiting stuff.

Given all the pre-match gloom and doom, recent form and all the finances and resources available to Toulon’s so-called ‘dream team’ this was a game that on balance Leinster probably deserved to win.

In what would have been one of the great European performances, Leinster came oh so close, and a moral victory will be scant reward for a team who’s season is now more or less over.

Leinster will look back at this game for years to come and think ‘what if?’.

The game did re-emphasise something – you can have all the resources and marquee players in the world, but if you can’t play the conditions effectively or have a weak set-piece game then you will struggle.

For large periods of this game Toulon struggled, or better still, were made to struggle. Leinster and their much criticised coach of late Matt O’Connor can take huge credit for the way that Leinster performed. For most of the match, despite losing, Leinster still looked the much better organised side and the better disciplined one as well, Toulon at one stage coughing up five penalties to Leinster’s one.

As I predicted on Friday, Leinster’s lineout reigned supreme and Leinster’s work in the scrum and at the breakdown were often superior to Toulon’s. But tight games hinge on the smallest of margins, and psychologically as the game ticked into extra-time, Leinster seemed in better shape both in mind and body. Toulon looked tired in the first minutes of extra-time, their kick chase had all but gone, and their veteran pack looked unfit, they were just relying on a few individual performances to possibly get them home.

Toulon would soon become even more rattled, especially when their ex-All Black Ali Williams was yellow-carded for interfering with Devin Toner in the air. Suddenly Toulon were down to 14 men, but then went three points ahead of Leinster. However, the Blues came looking for the kill. The ball broke Leinster’s way and at last their backs had space ahead. All Leinster’s outside backs had to do was for one of them to was straighten up the line — if they did, they had the chance of a serious 3 v 1 overlap.

Instead, all three of the Leinster backs crabbed side-ways, and the floated, but telegraphed pass, from Ian Madigan found its way to the best poacher in world rugby, South African Brian Habana. He made it a 10-point lead with a final swan-dive worthy of the Olympics.

Leinster were not just going to lie down, especially with Williams still in the bin, and after some great field position work and a well orchestrated  lineout maul, Seán O’Brien scored with the help of his energised pack.

Suddenly Toulon were shaking again, despite Jimmy Gopperth’s missed conversion, and another try from Leinster would have won it for them on the count back of tries scored in that game.

But Toulon are not two-time European champions on the trot for nothing and they managed to intelligently grind out the last few minutes close to the rucks.

From a Leinster point of view, they were heroes to a man – both the starting and the replacement front rows had their glorious moments and generally gave better than they got, while once again Toner showed that he is the most improved tight forward in world rugby this year.

Toner and hard-working partner Mike McCarthy dominated out of touch, Leister’s back row were simply magnificent, and flanker O’Brien’s battle with Toulon’s Steffon Armitage was a lesson on how to rob opposition ball.

Jordi Murphy had a great game in all aspects of play, not only in his excellent ground work but in his kick chase, his defence and his lineout, while once again No 8 Jamie Heaslip led from the front. While the backs did not get to see as much of the play due to the conditions, their defence was at times heroic.

 Leinster, despite a mixed season, showed, as Saracens had the day before against Clermont, that some of the old-fashioned values like heart and bravery go a long way, in Leister’s case nearly to yet another European final.

Leinster will return home, absolutely gutted, but also proud in the way they carried themselves in Marseilles and proud in the knowledge that Leinster rugby is still in pretty good shape.

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