Leinster left with familiar feeling as Toulouse triumph in Champions Cup final epic

Toulouse edged Leinster in extra time to claim the Champions Cup (Getty Images)

The Leinster players fell to the floor, battered, beaten, broken. For a third year in a row, the Dubliners had come up short on European rugby’s biggest stage, edged once again by French opposition. Around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Toulouse fans bounced and barked their tunes of triumph, joined in the thralls of victory by those of their exhausted heroes still left able to stand.

This competition has seen plenty of fabulous finals over the decades but never anything quite like this. Over 100 nerve-shredding minutes, these two contested one of the great games, a battle of brutal, brilliant beauty.

It took extra time to split the two European heavyweights, inseparable over eighty minutes and delivering an occasion befitting the grandeur that the Investec Champions Cup still carries. It was an affair contested of a ferocity to shake the foundations of this grandiose, gleaming ground, jumping throughout with nary a spare seat in sight. Their contrasting styles were always likely to create a captivating fight, Leinster prepared to jab away and stay the distance, their opponents picking their rounds to try and deal a knockout blow.

That eventually came in the additional period, three Thomas Ramos penalties the difference even with Toulouse down to 14 players at the end. Again, Leinster are left to reflect on a chance to confirm their greatness missed. Leo Cullen and co have cultivated an outstanding side and system, a team so regularly peerless in both the United Rugby Championship and Europe but now, after defeats to La Rochelle in 2022 and 2023, developing a horrible habit on the biggest of stages.

leinster rugby, toulouse rugby, champions cup, antoine dupont, blair kinghorn, josh van der flier, caelan doris, france rugby, thomas ramos, james lowe, leinster left with familiar feeling as toulouse triumph in champions cup final epic
Thomas Ramos struck thrice in extra time to take Toulouse to the trophy (Getty Images)

Cullen could not quibble with the efforts of his worn-out warriors, refusing to succumb until the very last. But for the sixth time, Stade Toulousain are European champions, their place as the ruling class of the continent secure once more.

The smoke from the pre-match pomp and ceremony had barely cleared when Toulouse’s little genius went to work. Antoine Dupont sparkled in the early summer sun as he electrified his side into life, starting a rightward adventure that so nearly brought an opening score. Only the brush of the scrum half’s boot against the right touchline prevented a remarkable blind offload from teeing up Juan Cruz Mallia from crossing.

Two crisp Blair Kinghorn mortars from roundabout the halfway line did nudge Toulouse in front but their intensity soon faded as Leinster found their patience and potency in possession. Thrice in the first 20 minutes the Irish side came within a matter of metres of the line but never were they able to punch through, leaving Ross Byrne to settle for three points to open their account.

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(Getty Images)

The first half physicality juddered the jaws and the joists around the arena, Romain Ntamack flattened by Caelan Doris; Blair Kinghorn answering with a tonking of Byrne. Leinster had paired Joe McCarthy and Jason Jenkins in a super-sized second row as an answer to the elephantine Emmanuel Meafou, and all were prominent punchers in the tight skirmishes.

Dupont remained influential, too – even when his conjuring went awry. An attempted inside ball was picked off by Dan Sheehan, who had the deftness of footwork to leave Ntamack grasping at air and the sheer speed to look a safe bet to canter home from inside his own half. Somehow, though, Kinghorn covered on the angle, hauling down the hooker and affording Dupont the opportunity to atone with a jackal turnover.

leinster rugby, toulouse rugby, champions cup, antoine dupont, blair kinghorn, josh van der flier, caelan doris, france rugby, thomas ramos, james lowe, leinster left with familiar feeling as toulouse triumph in champions cup final epic
Blair Kinghorn made a remarkable try-saving tackle on Dan Sheehan (Getty Images)

A penalty more apiece left Toulouse narrowly ahead on points as the pair retreated to their corners, James Lowe’s celebrations at the end of the half cut short after an earlier Leinster knock-on.

A drawing of breath, a repairing of ribs and the players braced for more as they returned from the interval. Leinster turned to their six/two bench split, bringing on James Ryan and Josh van der Flier, and were almost immediately level through Byrne’s boot.

There was no let-up in the physical stakes even as the contest deepened. Leinster beat against the French coastal defences but could not erode an opening, while Van der Flier was later carried like a cadaver to the touchline having been thrown a hospital pass by the otherwise excellent Hugo Keenan.

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(Getty Images)

The French giants had still yet to produce their trademark second half surge, a side usually at their best in percussive bursts not yet having beaten the drums in earnest. Kinghorn’s fourth penalty did briefly nudge their nose in front, only for Byrne to level again with 15 minutes left.

The blue and red flags that had waved throughout fell to the floor amidst a nibbling of nails. Toulouse lifted the intensity and introduced an assassin to their attacking array, Ramos on at full-back. He and Ntamack so nearly created a defining moment, a sweeping move resulting in the latter’s crossfield kick landing in the lap of Matthis Lebel – Jordan Larmour remarkably got across in time to keep Leinster alive.

Ramos – whose deadeye precision had sunk England in Lyon just months ago – was accurate from the tee, but so too was fellow replacement Ciaran Frawley, replying in kind. A last-minute drop goal, though, slid by – it was to be extra time. The weariest hauled their bodies up off the canvas, somehow having to find more in long-since-emptied tanks.

leinster rugby, toulouse rugby, champions cup, antoine dupont, blair kinghorn, josh van der flier, caelan doris, france rugby, thomas ramos, james lowe, leinster left with familiar feeling as toulouse triumph in champions cup final epic
Antoine Dupont led Toulouse to victory (Getty Images)

The last thing either wanted was to lose a man. Lowe could not help himself, though, from thrusting his fingers up at a Dupont offload with a Toulouse catcher waiting on the outside: penalty and a yellow card. With the wing on the naughty step, there was space aplenty on the edges, and the jet-heeled Lebel this time beat Larmour to the corner to dive in the game’s first try.

A Ramos penalty should have had Toulouse home but the drama had, somehow, barely begun. Richie Arnold’s shoulder made contact with the head of Cian Healy at a ruck, resulting in the lock’s dismissal, and Van der Flier drove from short range to the line. An interminable television match official review left Ian Tempest in the truck just about able to conclude a try had been scored, howls of French disgust drowned out by a Dublin roar.

Was this to be Leinster’s day after all? Not on the watch of Ramos from his sniper’s nest. Twice the referee’s arm was thrust up in Toulouse’s direction, allowing the kicker to calmly close the coffin on a contest that will live long in the memory.

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