The beauty of the Heineken Cup is that like so many other things about this amazing sport, it is perfectly imperfect.
For Leinster to be “rewarded” for winning the toughest qualifying pool with a trip to the home of the reigning champions may seem harsh, but everyone knows the rules before the competition kicks off and you just have to get on with playing what's in front of you. And there can be no doubt that Toulon did a much better job of that on Sunday.
These writeups when we lose big contests are always tough, and luckily I haven't had to do too many of them over the years. I reckon it is best to break the match down into a number of headings in areas I felt were key.
TOULON POUR QUATRE-VINGT MINUTES
First and foremost, what an epic display by the home side. Did not take a toe off the pedal from the first second to the last and pretty much produced a template on how to beat Leinster for any other team to study. From charging en masse from one end of the pitch to the other after a ball kicked through to swarming the breakdown area it was a monumental team effort from them.
Man of the match was always going to be Steffon Armitage who seemed to know when to get involved and make key contributions but there was nary a player in red who wasn't fully pumped for this one and we were pretty much blitzed out of it from start to finish. If anything we should take some pride (if little comfort especially for the travelling support which was loud & plentiful as always) in that the half time score was 6-6.
You always have to be mindful watching rugby on Sky. They tend to establish a premise and stick to it but that doesn't mean they have called things as they were.
For example...I don't believe Leinster lost this match simply because we were “dropping off tackles”. In the lead up to the first try Stu Barnes latched on to the fact that Toulon hooker Craig Burden (who lived up to his name and then some as far as Leinster were concerned) was missed by Devin Toner, even though he received the ball at pace running across the lofty lock.
Now don't get me wrong...I'm not saying our tackling was up to scratch when it mattered (27 missed is a number that’s going to stand out on any stat sheet), particularly in the third quarter, but I do not believe it is why we lost, more on that in the next point.
But there's a fine line between a defender missing a tackle and an attacker receiving & carrying in such a way as to break through it, and to focus on just one side of things is a very selective decision in my book.
THIS is where I saw the difference on the day, and the majority of Toulon's points sprang from situations when Leinster had control of the ball, including both of their tries.
There was much scratching of heads when Jimmy Gopperth was handed the number 10 jumper. I chose to give Matt O'Connor the benefit of the doubt because with 3 away wins out of 3 in our pool of death he had earned the right to be trusted for matches like this.
But the halftime score of 6-6 was definitely more on account of our defence. I lost count of the times Toulon were thwarted in our 22 by mesmerising scramble defence, yet when we had the ball we quite simply could not get anything going down at the other end.
Still...we were right in it when the second half kicked off and it wasn’t long before the wheels started to come off. Gopperth took the restart, deep into the Toulon 22, they set up phases and cleared. Lineout to Leinster around halfway, so far so good.
But our very first series of phases after that lineout led to Shane Jennings being criminally isolated at midfield and although injury had forced Wilkinson off before the interval, his replacement kicker Matt Giteau was able to slot the pen and the cup holders were back in front for good without even having left their own half.
Things looked better for us when scrum-half Sebastien Tilles-Bourde spilled the restart outside his own 22. It would be very easy for me to say we should have taken the scrum at that point, seeing how we seemed to have an edge at that set-piece, but then again Leinster being Leinster we chose to use the advantage and eventually Cian Healy dropped it.
Steffon was quick off the mark and not only lumped it downfield but chased it down as well...soon after that Burden was blowing past Toner and once the red machine was bearing down on our line again for the umpteenth time they were going to be hard to stop and it was prop Xavier Chiocci, who earlier won that pen against Jennings, who got the ball down.
Later as the clock neared 60 Leinster won a penalty at midfield but rather than take the call and go for a lineout set-piece in their 22, we actually saw some daylight in the Toulon D and a good burst from Zane Kirchener took us deep into their half. Sadly with the advantage over it was Steffon yet again with the turnover and Toulon were able to clear.
We still had a lineout in a decent position after that, but this time Fernandez-Lobbe was able to make it into a sloppy possession and once again it was a fly-hack through which brought the play to the other end and with the sun shining brightly for Toulon they made yet more hay as Drew Mitchell plucked a high offload from Bastareaud and evaded the challenge of D'Arcy to get over the line.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what our overall attacking mindset was. Going by the selection of Gopperth and the early high balls it would seem to be conservative, but then again with Eoin Reddan at 9 it was always going to be in our DNA to try and make the most out of advantage situations so surely if that was the case, Madigan would have been a better call. And having left it until the 66th minute to introduce him, it didn't help O'Connor's cause that the lone Leinster try came moments later.
It was our first chance of a lineout-maul in their 22 and they had no answer for it as Jordi Murphy bagged yet another try for himself. Unfortunately for us it was way in the corner and the missed conversion kept the margin too wide for even a team known to overcome seemingly impossible deficits.
THE BOUNCE OF THE BALL
Boo-hoo, we had no luck! There's not much I can write under that heading that doesn't make it look like I'm saying that, but I'll try.
No doubt the English will argue that the bounce of the ball went against them twice in Paris during the Six Nations, both when France beat them in round 1 and when Ireland won there in round 5. To them I say, if you relax your rules a tad and let players like Steffon Armitage play no matter where they choose to earn their keep, then maybe you could be champions now.
Anyway...it has to be said that throughout this match when there was a 50/50 contest for the ball it seemed to go towards the home side, but as I have already said, Toulon were more up for this one for the entire 80 and deserved whatever luck was going.
Even when their water-boy screwed up and brought the kicking tee on when it wasn't wanted, Delon Armitage was able to capitalise with a monster penalty kick! It really was one of those days when everything seems to be falling right for you, and heaven knows Leinster have known plenty of those over the years.
Didn't cost us the game but was really all over the place, and scanning over comments on social media I find it odd that this wasn't being highlighted more by “neutral” fans given the pasting that Alain Rolland got the week before.
His “gate” at the breakdown seemed to vary in size throughout, his whistles for “holding after the tackle” calls were often too late (the ball would become available THEN he'd blow) and more than once he had to correct his own call which confused both sets of players.
Biggest of all was his interpretation of Florian Freisa's challenge. “Came through, took 9 out off his feet”, you say, Wayne? Try “flew at Eoin Reddan with his head” and you're closer to the point. Not that the colour of card really mattered in the 73rd minute but it capped an awful display from the official and hopefully he won't get the whistle in any of the remaining matches.
OK hand on heart, there are none for Leinster fans. When our boys win such an elite competition three times we're always going to be gutted when we go out of it.
Sure, it means we can have a couple of extra weekends off to focus on retaining both our Pro 12 crown as well as the B&I Cup (for which our team can now be upgraded to Leinster A+ perhaps with a few extra senior players added for the trip to Pontypridd?) but although all of the above is true, I still feel dirty after typing it.
We definitely have questions to answer, even if they aren't the ones spun by Stu Barnes & his Sky cronies. I have often been critical of Leinster for not playing like the away team when a situation calls for it – that may seem harsh because we all love seeing the game of rugby played in an open and attacking fashion, but I feel on this occasion we fell between two stools and we were up against a team primed to make full use of every bit of indecision.
So what could have been a glorious weekend for provincial rugby ends up with Munster standing alone in the semifinals. Hopefully they will be able to learn from our mistakes and put Laporte’s men to the sword in Marseille.
Maybe if the citing commissioner decides to have a look at what Steffon Armitage was doing to Brian O'Driscoll in the first half they may be spared from facing him.
But even without the English back-rower, Toulon represent the full extent of what the professional game has become and have several different quality options to take his place. Best of luck to Rob Penney & co...they're going to need it. JLP
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Also this weekend
Heineken Cup Quarterfinals
Clermont Auvergne 22 - 16 Leicester Tigers
British & Irish Cup Quarterfinal