Third time unlucky for Leinster as Toulouse win European Champions Cup

third time unlucky for leinster as toulouse win european champions cup

Matthis Lebel goes over for Toulouse at the start of extra time. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock

There are plenty of decent rugby teams out there but, at club level, the force is presently with Toulouse. By winning a dramatic sixth Champions Cup title they have propelled themselves even further above and beyond their biggest European rivals and remain a formidable side in anybody’s language.

Club rugby occasions do not come bigger or more tense and nothing was ever remotely guaranteed, with the scores tied at 15-15 at the end of normal time and the atmosphere increasingly gladiatorial. Cometh the hour, cometh les hommes. Three minutes into the first period of extra time, with James Lowe in the sin-bin, the French giants stretched Leinster’s depleted defence wide on the left and Matthis Lebel scorched over for the game-breaking try.

And despite having the lock Richie Arnold sent off for a dangerous clear-out on Cian Healy, a 14-man Toulouse subsequently kicked on, the accurate right boot of Thomas Ramos delivering four vital penalties to secure a fourth successive French victory in as many years. This was just the third Champions Cup final to go to extra time and Toulouse, remarkably, have won all of them.

It was a brutal way for Leinster to lose a third consecutive final, particularly given how hard they had battled throughout the regular 80 minutes. Ultimately, though, they did not have tactical architects of the calibre of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and their Jacques Nienaber-inspired defensive excellence was not quite matched by their attacking ‘red zone’ ruthlessness.

What an epic contest this was, regardless of the ultimate outcome. If the award of seven penalties against Leinster at the breakdown in the first half alone hinted at an unsatisfactory stop-start affair it was nothing of the sort. There have been less thunderous Test matches and, once the dust finally settles, it will be remembered among the most absorbing finales this tournament has seen.

To cast it as a battle between Leinster’s defensive excellence and Toulouse’s offloading majesty would be an over-simplification but both elements were very much on show. The man of the match Dupont’s brilliance was also evident from the outset. Darting into a little bit of space wide on the right in the second minute he was tackled by his covering opposite number Jamison Gibson-Park but threw a world-class offload to Juan Cruz Mallía who went over in the corner. It would have been a try of the season contender had Dupont’s right boot not just grazed the touchline as he went to release the ball.

It did not remotely faze Toulouse. With Leinster desperately trying to slow down their ball at the breakdowns, two ominous Blair Kinghorn penalties swiftly had the French side 6-0 ahead. Only a misjudged kick-off reception allowed their opponents to escape their own half and, while Leinster did then enjoy a period of territorial pressure, they ultimately came away with only a Ross Byrne penalty to show for it.

Byrne was always going to be a prominent figure, purely by dint of the fact he is wearing Johnny Sexton’s old jersey. He can look a little upright and mechanical by comparison and, at this level, nothing less than masterful tends to be good enough. It was a welcome relief for all Leinster fans, then, when he smoothly put away Robbie Henshaw on a scything midfield break to show why Leinster’s coaches have kept faith in him.

In these kind of intense contests, though, even the best can make the occasional misjudgement. A fractional knock-on from Dupont briefly interrupted his side’s rhythm before a momentary lapse of defensive concentration allowed Dan Sheehan to race from inside his own half to within five metres of the Toulouse line. Leinster, though, collapsed the ensuing maul to concede a penalty the other way and allow their opponents off the hook.

It was all becoming a touch helter skelter, waiting for someone to put their metaphorical foot on the ball. Dupont duly did so, drilling a brilliant 50-22 into the Leinster 22 to establish the position from which his pack won a scrum penalty and Kinghorn slotted another vital three points. Had the full-back added a fourth penalty a minute before the interval, instead of slightly mishitting it, Toulouse really would have marched in at half-time feeling confident.

Instead it was Leinster who struck back just before the break, Byrne kicking his second penalty after a flurry of action during which James Lowe momentarily thought he had scored in the left corner only to discover the referee, Matthew Carley, had already blown his whistle.

The same absorbing game of muscular cat and alert mouse was maintained in the second half, Byrne levelling the scores up at 9-9 after 47 minutes with the Irish Test forwards James Ryan and Josh Van der Flier both now on the field as replacements. Ryan Baird snaffled a key breakdown steal, celebrating as if the trophy itself had just been secured, and Nienaber’s fight-for-everything Springbok mentality was increasingly evident in its new blue form.

At 12-12, it was a case of who would blink first? For a split second it seemed a leaping Lebel had scored a brilliant try in the corner but the replays showed Jordan Larmour had just intervened in the nick of time. After Ramos and Frawley had swapped further penalties, however, the latter narrowly missed an opportunity to settle things with a late drop goal attempt.

Extra time simply added to the excruciating tension. True, this tournament currently has its imperfections, both structurally and logistically. But sitting beneath Tottenham Hotspur’s striking golden cockerel, watching some of the world’s best players chasing an egg-shaped ball it is equally true that big-time rugby can refresh parts not every other sport can reach.

Where else, for example, would you come across supporters en route to the ground clad in an unusual combo of Toulouse replica jerseys and kilts. When asked if they were Kinghorn super fans it emerged they had also attended the previous dozen finals, dressed in contrasting national dress each time. “It’s what sport’s all about,” explained my new Scottish friend, already swept up in the excitement of another cosmopolitan festival. On and off the field this year’s final will live long in the memory.

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