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Dublin: -1°C Friday 4 December 2020
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Extra-time heartbreak for Leinster as Habana try wins it for Toulon

Bryan Habana intercepted an Ian Madigan pass to send Toulon on to face Clermont in the final.

Toulon 25

Leinster 20

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Vélodrome

MATT O’CONNOR’S LEINSTER suffered European heartbreak as they went down 25-20 to reigning champions Toulon after a nail-biting encounter in Marseille that needed extra time to be resolved.

Bryan Habana scores a try Bryan Habana dives over for the game-winning Toulon try. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

An intercept try by South African international wing Bryan Habana clinched the game for Bernard Laporte’s side, who now move on to meet Clermont in the Twickenham final on 2 May.

Toulon will be targeting their third consecutive European title in that meeting, but the French outfit showed weaknesses against a determined Leinster in this semi-final success.

It was in truth an error-strewn game, but O’Connor’s men deserve credit for the fight they brought to the contest, as well as their set-piece strength and ability to earn penalty chances for Ian Madigan.

The defensive effort was strong from the Irish province too, the likes of Sean O’Brien, Devin Toner and Sean Cronin standing out in that regard.

However, the European giants had that extra ounce of quality when they needed it most, scoring no less than 10 points during the 10 minutes Ali Williams spent in the sin bin in extra time.

Leinster showed mental strength to respond to the sucker punch that was Habana’s intercept score to build a superb maul try for O’Brien, but Toulon held on in front of a 35,116 crowd in Marseille.

O’Connor’s side almost had the hellish start many had feared pre-game, with Ian Madigan firing the kick-off all the way over the deadball line and allowing Toulon a swift access point with a midfield scrum.

The pressure was instantaneously applied and ended with referee Wayne Barnes playing a penalty advantage to the French side as Leinster failed to roll away. Michalak opted for a hanging garryowen with the ‘free play,’ sending it into Leinster’s in-goal area.

Chris Masoe scores a try that was ruled out for offside Masoe thought he'd scored within five minutes of the kick-off. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fergus McFadden had time to gather and touch down or at least call a mark, but instead spilled the ball for the second time in two minutes. Rob Kearney desperately attempted to clean up in vain, before Chris Masoe dived in to touch the ball down.

Fortunately for Leinster, TMO Graham Hughes’ review showed that Masoe had chased Michalak’s kick from an offside position. No try, but Leigh Halfpenny popped over the original penalty for 3-0 with five minutes elapsed.

After their sloppy start, Leinster came back strongly with some excellent kick-chasing from the hard-working Jordi Murphy allowing Madigan to get a block on Halfpenny’s attempted clearing kick.

Matt Giteau scooped up the rebound and hacked the ball clear, but lock Bakkies Botha made a rash decision to compete with Cian Healy from a clearly offside position, producing the penalty that allowed Madigan to equalise for Leinster.

Mistakes flowed from both sides, Sean O’Brien missing two tackles before coming up with a big turnover penalty that allowed Leinster to earn the field position for Madigan’s second three-pointer.

This time Chris Masoe failed to support his own body weight as he jackaled, and Barnes was swift to the whistle for Leinster to move 6-3 ahead.

The Irish province’s set-piece was already showing promising signs, as Mike Ross demonstrated his experience against Xavier Chiocci, while Devin Toner and Murphy hassled the Toulon lineout into errors.

Ian Madigan kicks a penalty Madigan has been a points machine for Leinster all season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The ill-disciplined Botha gave up his third clear penalty on the 20-minute mark, dragging Murphy down in the air on Leinster’s throw, with Madigan again punishing the infringement for a somewhat surprising 9-3 lead.

Bernard Laporte’s double European champions were short of their clinical best, shaky at the scrum, poor in their handling in the admittedly heavy rain and lacking the cohesion their attack needs to flow.

Still, a penalty against Cian Healy for bursting offside in defence allowed Halfpenny to narrow the margin from the tee with half an hour gone, though Leinster were aggrieved at Barnes’ call.

Madigan kicked the restart too deep again on the next play, but Ross continued to trouble 25-year-old Chiocci at scrum time.

Having edged the breakdown battle in the first 30 minutes, Leinster began to concede momentum in that area as the game ebbed towards half time. Masoe produced one jackal penalty after a poor Isaac Boss pass to Murphy, then Steffon Armitage entered the fray.

Replacing the injured Juan Smith with four minutes left in the half, the Englishman took just two to win his first turnover penalty. Toulon quick-tapped and found space with the boot, but the livewire Sean Cronin outpaced a trio of Toulon backs to clean up.

The 9-6 half-time lead had O’Connor’s men exactly where they would have desired to be, and they took their time re-emerging from the break, earning a chorus of boos from the Toulonais for their troubles.

Steffon Armitage is tackled by Cian Healy Armitage was introduced just before half time. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The rain had cleared during the interval but a further exchange of handling errors suggested the ball was as greasy as in the first half, out-halves Gopperth and Michalak both guilty of coughing up the pill.

Toulon did finally manage to sort their lineout woes, going simple by throwing to Botha at two and powering up their maul to draw Leinster into dragging it down. Barnes went for the penalty, but Halfpenny uncharacteristically missed one we’d expected him to get.

Laporte’s side were still on shaky ground, Giteau knocking-on a routine gather of a Leinster clearance and then almost allowing Gopperth to steal in for an intercept score close to the Toulon tryline.

That followed a move into out-half for Giteau, Michalak stroppily exiting the game after being called ashore. Perhaps the more important alteration was the introduction of Alexandre Menini for Chiocci.

The French international almost immediately won a scrum penalty against Ross, providing Halfpenny with the platform to make amends for his earlier miss and draw Toulon level at 9-9 with 56 minutes played.

O’Connor called Ross ashore within a minute.

Leinster showed composure to build their next scoring chance, the masterful Toner running the show as his pack built a well-organised maul, which Toulon could only halt by coming in from the side.

Madigan opted to kick for the posts from 15 metres in from the left-hand sideline and just outside the 22, but his effort curled onto the left post and rebounded wide.

Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado tackle Rob Kearney Rob Kearney gets smashed by Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Ireland international centre followed the miss up by seeing his next kick from hand blocked down, the pressure reverting immediately onto Leinster. The increasingly fussy Barnes pinged Gopperth for not rolling away post-tackle.

Halfpenny made no mistake from 35 metres out, but then Barnes penalised Juan Fernandez Lobbe for the same offence and Madigan stepped up to a 46-metre penalty amidst a defeaning chorus of Toulon boos.

The 26-year-old held his nerve to fire the penalty over, drawing the game level again at 12-12 with 10 minutes remaining.

Leinster had chances to win the game in regular time, but a crooked throw from replacement hooker Richardt Strauss was costly after 75 minutes, before O’Connor’s men constructed a drop-goal attempt to grab a dramatic victory.

Gopperth was the man in the pocket but his effort under pressure drifted to the right and wide. After Toulon cleared their lines, Kearney had an ambitious attempt with another drop goal from the halfway line but was wide and short.

There was almost heartbreak at the very death for Leinster then, as Barnes again penalised Leinster for dropping an imposing Toulon maul in the final minute of the game.

The infamous Delon Armitage took the responsibility for a penalty shot at goal a good six metres inside his own half, but he came up 10 metres short after an interminably tense kicking routine and the game headed into extra time.

Leigh Halfpenny kicks a peanalty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Toulon enjoyed the better start to the first period of extra time, winning a powerful scrum penalty through replacement tighthead Levan Chilachava to allow Halfpenny to send them in front from 40 metres out despite slipping.

The lead lasted only three minutes, however, as sub lock Jocelino Suta was correctly penalised for an ugly choke hold on Strauss that could have seen him yellow carded. Instead, Madigan slotted a difficult penalty from wide on the left.

Toulon’s yellow card did come on the very next play though, as Ali Williams was adjudged to have taken Toner out in the air as he chased up a kick. Barnes reviewed the incident with his TMO and harshly sent the Kiwi lock for a 10-minute breather at a crucial point.

This was surely Leinster’s chance to redeem their season. What followed was a disaster.

First, Kearney ran into contact with little support, the majestic Masoe clamping over the ball and winning the turnover penalty. From 45 metres this time, Halfpenny again delivered.

With time up in the first half of extra time, Leinster secured a brilliant turnover on the deck through O’Brien and Madigan instantly looked to spread the ball wide on the counter attack.

It was an ill-judged decision, however, as poacher supreme Bryan Habana picked off the looping pass to race clear and score from long range. That Leinster had numbers up in the wide channel and only needed to put the ball through the hands rather than skip made the try all the harder to stomach.

Halfpenny converted to leave Toulon in control at 25-15 as we briefly paused for breath.

10 points behind with 10 minutes left to save their season, Leinster did respond with conviction at least, building a superb maul try for O’Brien, although the conversion attempt from wide on the left proved too difficult for Gopperth, Madigan have been replaced by Gordon D’Arcy.

Toulon had the mettle to see it out from there.

Toulon scorers:Tries: Bryan Habana

Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [1 from 1]

Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [6 from 7]

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Sean O’Brien

Conversions: Jimmy Gopperth [0 from 1]

Penalties: Ian Madigan [5 from 6]

TOULON: Leigh Halfpenny; Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana (Drew Mitchell ’91); Frederic Michalak (Rudi Wulf ’47), Sébastien Tillous-Borde; Xavier Chiocci (Alexandre Menini ’51), Guilhem Guirado (Jean-Charles Orioli ’66), Carl Hayman (capt.) (Levan Chilachava ’74); Bakkies Botha (Jocelino Suta ’60), Ali Williams; Juan Smith (Steffon Armitage ’36), Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe.

Replacements not used: Michael Claassens.

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden (Zane Kirchner ’60), Ben Te’o, Ian Madigan (Gordon D’Arcy ’91), Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss (Eoin Reddan ’66); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’66), Sean Cronin (Richardt Strauss ’66), Mike Ross (Marty Moore ’57); Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy (Ben Marshall ’90); Jordi Murphy (Dominic Ryan ’90), Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (capt.).

Referee: Wayne Barnes [England].

Attendance: 35,116.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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