Monday, May 16, 2022

Leinster-40 Toulouse-17

LEINSTERTAINMENT+

Not even a minute gone in a massive Champions Cup semifinal between teams with nine stars between them. Leinster, having kicked off, have their first possession around midfield, and thus their first chance to test the reigning cup holders' defences.


Hang on...where am I going with "their"??? This is a fan site which means I'm free to leave my impartiality at the door, which in turn means I'm free to go with "we"....


Anyway...Toulouse's defences early on do appear to be strong. Having gotten the ball from one 10m line to the other, the visitors' line speed was such that WE were driven back towards the halfway line and thus needed to decide if regrouping was a good idea.


"No one home here..."


In the BT commentary box, Brian O'Driscoll, who generally does his best to be as neutral as possible (certainly would try to avoid saying "we") can see something the TV camera angle isn't showing us, namely a massive gap in the Toulouse backfield, and as it turned out James Lowe, in possession on the sixth phase, spotted it too.


Some days, the bounce would have brought his kick ahead into touch, which would have been a decent outcome. Other days, the bounce would have gone "end over end" bringing it beyond the try line or even worse for us, beyond the dead ball line meaning there would have to be a scrum all the way back.


But on this day, look where the ball ended up. You pretty much couldn't have placed it better as it stopped just short of the try line, giving their full back Ramos no option (thanks to the strong chase by Jimmy O'Brien) but to clear his lines and just like that we've an attacking lineout just outside their 22 before the clock hits two minutes.

Fast forward to the 71st minute. Leinster have built a 13-point lead at this stage, and obviously I will harp on all of that here eventually, but for the sake of this opening section I'd like to point out that if there's any team in Europe that could pull two quick converted tries out of the bag in a match situation like this, it's one that has a half back line of Antoine Dupont and Roman Ntamack.


They had just taken a quick lineout in their own half. Cyrill Baille, unexpectedly back on the pitch for a second spell after his replacement had gone off injured, had not dropped his match intensity a jot and had two carries in the set their forwards used to actually find the rare species that is a Leinster soft shoulder to get the ball quickly back to halfway.


Next we get a taste of our own medicine as Dupont and Ntamack execute a near perfect "wraparound" play and a little show and go from the number 10 evades the challenges of both Garry Ringrose and James Lowe, and as he is eventually tackled by O'Brien, he manages an offload out of the tackle which is meant for his own number 14 Jean Cruz Mallia and if the pass had stuck, the winger would have had acres of space up the touchline to run into.


Yet while Lowe might have been beaten by Ntamack's run, he wasn't yet done with the play. He spotted Mallia in space and stuck around for the offload, which went straight to him. And this time, with Toulouse on the attack, he didn't need to look around to know that there would have been just as much open grass in their 22 as there was in those opening exchanges.


So he takes it, spins around, and swings his left boot at the ball. I refer you once more to the earlier paragraph starting with "some days..." for all the things that could have happened. But once again, the perfect thing for us happened.


You can pretty much see the disgust on Ramos' face just as the ball's momentum dies before the tryline...

Of COURSE it stopped there. Why wouldn't it?

And you can also see the delight on Lowe's face as he's chasing it down...

Of COURSE I meant it to stop there. Why wouldn't I?

To Ramos' and his teammates' credit, they managed to get the ball as far as the 22 from here but to our own chasing defenders' even greater credit, we then managed to stop them at the 22 where they knocked on allowing the clock to tick deeper into the seventies with the set up of a scrum.


Watching the match live as it happened, it was only then that I was reasonably satisfied that we had done it. Yet watching it back now, it looked like a contest that was effectively over a long way before that moment.


Because what I said in last week's writeup of the win at Welford Road...


"...you have to be happy with the performance - I've been saying all season how even though we're top of the URC our matchday squads for Europe seem to find an extra level when it comes to focus, professionalism, cohesion or whatever other buzzwords you might want to use."


...applied again on Saturday, and I'd even go as far as to say that we managed to crank the level up a little bit more if anything. Was that because of home advantage or because of necessity given our opposition's greater Euro experience? Maybe a bit of both? But whatever it was, it was a sight to behold, and definitely a level up from even the best displays the boys in blue have offered in this competition in days gone by, which is really saying something.


Actually the fact that James Lowe did these two amazing kicks, also helping himself to two tries while playing a pivotal role in our fourth, DIDN'T get Player of the Match, which nobody, not even he would dispute, tells you all you need to know.


So I guess there's nothing left for me to do but to go through the 80 minutes and trust me, I'm very happy to do it...


0-20


I'll start with the lineout just after the first Lowe kick I described in my opening bit...the Toulouse pack played silly beggars with their numbers and seemingly referee Karl Dickson was in "no nonsense" mood, instantly awarding a free kick where we chose the even better attacking platform of a scrum.


After some Garry Ringrose crash ball we tested their tackling some more with a series of phases deep in their 22 - they were holding us out although often not legally, something Dickson also spotted as he actually awarded us three penalties in this series alone. He warned the visitors before Sexton chose the option in front of the posts to give us a 3-0 lead.


The next big moments are featured in our latest Tik Tok video...

@harpinonrugby

Harpin Tik Tok 6 : "Le Pass Magnifique de Furlong"

♬ original sound - Harpin On Rugby

Just in case it won't play for you, it has "that pass" by Furlong, Dupont's length of the field try after Keenan's break, all while questioning whether or not the pair of knock ons just before all of that should have deemed the score null and void.

I would like to add one paragraph in defence of Jamison Gibson-Park's decision to kick the ball forward. For one thing it was definitely a high risk option, but if you look at the situation after Furlong's sorcery put Keenan clear in their 22 you can see why he thought the kick into the corner was on. It was still transition for the Toulouse D and both Sexton and Lowe had green grass in front of them to the line. So while his failure to spot his opposite number lurking behind him cost us the lead at that moment, his logic in going for that decision once he arrived to the breakdown was still sound IMO.

So you might think conceding an early score would be a reality check, but truth be told we weren't in the mood for checking anything. We just carried on regardless, with a Doris break coming shortly afterwards only for him to put a bit too much zip on his offload to Keenan, and after they cleared, our next lineout had us right back there pressing again until they shipped another penalty in front.


But...but...they were on a warning for this kind of offence already? Clearly Mr Dickson never saw our video about the Stormers match a couple of weeks ago...anyway, Sexton kicked the penalty to get us within 1.


We were still locked in to our gameplan to find a way through this stubborn, if maybe a bit too illegal, Toulouse defence. After Lowe's booming exit clearance led to some kick tennis between Sexton and Ntamack, our skipper emerged on top and when we won a penalty outside their 22 he decided it was time to go for the jugular with our first lineout from 5m out.


Just like last week at Welford Rd before our first score, Kelleher's dart was perfect, to Molony this time who took the clean grab, and off goes the maul towards the line. Next Henshaw with the crash, some more phases and finally James Lowe has plenty of time to fall over the line with it. Even though it took us almost 15 minutes to cross, the air of inevitability around it could not be ignored.


This was when Furlong had to limp off, as I type I am anxiously waiting for news on his fitness, although as I say in the video, his replacement Michael Ala'alatoa, put into a situation which was always part of his remit when signing for us, went on to do a really good job.


And the lads certainly weren't going to let this stop them getting back down the other end, with more high kicks raining down on Ramos from our back three. This might not have been a tactic you'd think we'd use in a match like this, as he's generally good at tidying these up, only perhaps not with the likes of JGP hunting him down.


This time the pressure meant Dupont had to clear in a hurry, allowing Hugo Keenan to start the ball rolling again, and Sexton wasn't waiting around for another penalty to get things going...having provided the final pass for Lowe earlier, now he's fooling everyone with a show and go...and I do mean everyone, look at the screengrab - who in their right minds didn't think he was going to pass???


Now he's in open territory with so much space and time that he can easily think through all his options and once he spots van der Flier's red scrum cap, well there is only one option isn't there. Just get it to him and no matter how many try to stop him, it'll get over the line. Which is exactly what happened.


As Sexton converted to bring the scoreboard to 20-7 only one question remained at this point...how have only twenty minutes elapsed????


20-HT


In case we needed a reminder that there was a long way to go, Ntamack's restart was lost by Jack Conan in the Dublin afternoon sun and when Toulouse won a penalty at the first Furlong-less scrum, we feared it could cost more than the three points Ramos added to their score.


But it wasn't long before we were back playing the rugby we wanted to play, namely the kicking game, and when another monster boot by Lowe seemed to go from his own 22 into the opposite one for what would have been a Leinster throw, the assistant ref defied our winger (and the bulk of the 42k crowd) to call it the other way - and you know what, he was absolutely right.


That didn't really matter though, because Meafou went off his feet to clear out JGP at a breakdown, plus there was some backchat bringing the play forward another 10 (still on that warning....) allowing Sexton to restore that 13-point lead.


Finally Dickson's patience ran out, when once again it was Sexton trickery slipping a little ball to Ringrose allowing him to crash into their 22 and when Meafou created an almost perfect action replay of his hit on our 9, out came the yellow card. Little bit awkward timing-wise for us, as the ten-minute spell was broken up by half time, but still a perfect chance for us to stretch the lead to that all important 15+.


As it turned out it was Toulouse on the attack as the clock went past 40m, although our defence was more than able to stop them in their tracks. Meanwhile up in my lofty perch high in the West Stand I was in complete awe of what I had just seen, although I did manage to dream up a heading for my article at this point...


40-60


Full credit to Toulouse, they certainly did not emerge from the dressing room having given up the ghost. I guess you don't win this great competition that many times with any other kind of approach.


They saw out the yellow card, and as ever were ready to attack from anywhere. In fact we came close to a repeat of their first try after a great catch by Jimmy O'Brien had put us on the front foot in their 22 only for an attempted "miss" pass from JGP instead went straight to Ntamack who proceeded to set off in the opposite direction.


His instinct was to kick ahead and now we're at the part of the writeup where my blue goggles will probably stand out the most. Right after he kicks it, Jack Conan absolutely does catch him and you can see the point of contact in the screengrab. Did he mean it? Or did Ntamack dive? Might as well ask whether the chicken or the egg came first, but for what it's worth I think the TMO's line of "he's put a hand on him and that causes the legs to clash" is pretty much spot on, so no foul play was determined.


Clearly Toulouse could have done with an extra man, because while they were enjoying more possession in this spell, our defensive standards were exactly where they have been all season, with James Ryan and Ross Molony (our nailed on starting pair of locks now no matter who else is available) also thwarting them with well timed jumps on their lineout darts.


And right after that Molony steal, which was in our own half, we quickly pinned them back at their own 22 and more intimidating chasing from the boys in blue meant they had to hurry their clearance so much that our scrum half was able to block.


Now we're back on the foot foot again, there's another crash to the line under the posts, another penalty advantage signalled by the ref, another decisive pass from Johnny Sexton to James Lowe, and yes, another Leinster try.


For those keeping score, that made it a hat trick of assists for our skipper. That was why he was Player of the Match. Well, that, plus the show and go. Well, those things, plus the 6 out of 6 from the kicking tee. Well, let's face it, it was all of it and a whole lot more.


There was another injury concern for us as Rónan Kelleher went off for an HIA but it wasn't long before his replacement Dan Sheehan made his presence felt with a massive dump tackle while we were under siege in our own 22. But there was also a big hit the other way, this time by Ahki on Sexton, although once again our defenders were able to snuff out the danger quickly enough as the clock ticked past 60m.


60-FT


At 62 minutes we had arguably Leinster's best set of defending. Toulouse had a lineout just inside our half. Just five phases later, Ntamack had no other option but to kick it back to us and not only that, he was back over the halfway line in his own territory.


But they were not for giving up and when presented with their own 5m lineout, their sub Tolofua somehow managed to keep his feet inside the touchline as the maul surged forward and he eventually peeled off and fell over. A superb touchline conversion from Ramos meant the margin was now back at 13.


The benches were being emptied at this point, including our halfbacks getting replaced by Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne, but if we as fans were anxious about the scoreline, it certainly didn't show on anyone wearing blue on the pitch.


Next came the Lowe kick ahead I mentioned earlier, which ended in a scrum to Leinster. The overall beauty of this Leinster display is in our confidence, or dare I say our expectation, that we will somehow score points in these situations, and sure enough after Frawley, on for Robbie Henshaw, crashed into the 22 off the scrum, and it wasn't long before we were close to the line again.


Eventually right after yet another in a long line of strong carries from Ala'alatoa, the ever tiring Toulouse defenders were caught straying offside, and as you can see, the Leinster players were in complete agreement about going for the posts, with Ross Byrne calmly getting the job done to put the lead back to 16.


And we still weren't finished with the scoring. On 78m Toulouse were valiantly still trying to get something going only to fall into another one of our defensive traps, meaning Dupont coughed up the ball to Caelan Doris and before you knew it there we were back on the attack again.


Ringrose sent what to mere mortals would be a "tentative" kick ahead into their 22 only to James Lowe it's more of a dare, as he somehow got to the bounce of the ball before about half a dozen players around him and ended up close to the line. From there, again it looked way too easy as Keenan pondered the pass outside him only to bring it in himself.


The conversion from Ross Byrne brought an amazing Aviva afternoon to a close.


HARPIN' POINTS


Let's play that time-traveller game we often do in sports shall we. If someone had told us before kickoff that 1) Toulouse would score first 2) Tadhg Furlong would go off after just 16m and also 3) we would fail to score for 10m after a Toulouse yellow card, that would not sound good at all.


But this Leinster team...going back over the years we used the term "Leinstertainment" (AFAIK originally coined by @cianer31son) which I always took to mean our "champagne" style of rugby, meaning mostly breathtaking backline moves. This was absolutely all of that, only with something extra. The defence, certainly. Also the confidence, and that famed Stuart Lancaster focal point, cohesion.


It was quite simply never in doubt.


Speaking of Leinster coaches, as I type I learn that the latest worst kept secret at the province, namely that Dr Phil is due to leave to take up a position with the Pumas, has been confirmed. Anyone think of a way to give him the perfect send off????


I saw some comments, unfortunately from fans of other provinces, that we perhaps got the rub of the green from the ref. Even if that were true it wasn't the winning of this match. Or even if those James Lowe kicks meant he should have bought a lottery ticket, in no way was luck the winning of this match either. Or even if Toulouse did have an extra twenty minutes of rugby in the same ground a week before, their tiredness wasn't the winning of this match.


As I have said many times on these pages this season, Leinster have brought a particular focus to their European outings this season and that is what we saw on Saturday, that is what was in the winning of this match, and that is what will have us favourites for the final in Marseille. If we can repeat this kind of performance, it is La Rochelle who will be needing all of the above to go in their favour.


WHAT'S NEXT


Of course all matches against Munster "matter", but you'll have to believe me when I say it's not out of partisan spite that I say that next Saturday evening's clash at the Aviva will matter more to them for many different reasons. For Leinster it is all about Marseille for the next two weeks.


Still, we will of course give our final regular season URC fixture our full attention during the week, I'll have Michelle Tobin on the podcast as well as the usual preview and of course writeup among other things. Have to say I really enjoyed doing this one, many thanks as ever for sticking with me until the end. JLP


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