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When Leinster went to Toulouse and toppled the reigning European champions

Michael Cheika’s men delivered a stunning performance in their 2006 Heineken Cup quarter-final.

LEINSTER’S DISMANTLING OF Bath in their do-or-die final pool game had underlined their status as a coming force, with Brian O’Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi, and Keith Gleeson sensational in a 35-23 win at the Rec.

Still, they travelled to Toulouse as underdogs for their quarter-final against the defending champions, whose team was littered with big-name internationals.

Leinster hadn’t achieved much of note in Europe up until this point in 2006 but they chose the perfect occasion to announce themselves by winning 41-35.

malcolm-okelly-and-gordon-darcy Malcolm O'Kelly and Gordon D'Arcy celebrate their win. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Toulouse had moved the game to the Stade de Toulouse to facilitate a crowd of more than 37,000, with another huge crowd watching the game on big screens back  at their usual home of Stade Ernset Wallon.

The expectation was that three-time winners Toulouse would show Leinster what European class was all about and though the French side did impress in bursts, it was Michael Cheika and David Knox’s visiting team who stole the show.

This is a game we discussed on last Monday’s edition of The42 Rugby Weekly Extra, the rugby podcast for members of The42, in what was the first episode of a series digging into classic Irish rugby games that laid the foundation for greater exploits in the future.

Cheika’s team included the 22-year-old Jamie Heaslip and proven stars like O’Driscoll, Contepomi, Gordon D’Arcy, and Malcolm O’Kelly, as well as imports Will Green and Bryce Williams.

LEINSTER: Girvan Dempsey; Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll (Kieran Lewis), Gordon D’Arcy (Rob Kearney), Denis Hickie; Felipe Contepomi (Rob Kearney – blood sub), Guy Easterby; Reggie Corrigan (Ronnie McCormack), Brian Blaney, Will Green; Bryce Williams, Malcolm O’Kelly; Cameron Jowitt (Eric Miller), Keith Gleeson, Jamie Heaslip.

Toulouse had an array of frontline France starters, as well as an ex-Leinster man in Trevor Brennan.

TOULOUSE: Clement Poitrenaud (Maxime Medard); Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, Florian Fritz (Maleli Kunavore), Cedric Heymans; Frédéric Michalak (Jean-Frederic Dubois), Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde; Jean-Baptiste Pouz, Yannick Bru (Virgile Lacombe), Omar Hasan (Gregory Menkarska); Fabien Pelous, Trevor Brennan (Romain Millo-Chluski); Jean Bouilhou (Gregory Lamboley), Yannick Nyanga, Finau Maka.

Three accurate penalties from Contepomi had guided Leinster to a 9-6 lead after the first quarter, helping them to dent the Toulouse confidence and boosting their own.

And then Cheika’s men struck with a lineout attack that stunned the hosts.

On a good day for the Leinster lineout – where Toulouse struggled – Cameron Jowitt gathered Brian Blaney’s throw, came to ground and popped the ball off to scrum-half Guy Easterby to launch the play.

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From there, Leinster’s pre-planned move saw Contepomi hit Shane Horgan with an inside pass for the initial break before the wing returned the ball to the out-half and he connected with O’Driscoll for a sensational first-phase score.

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Leinster’s backs deliver here but, as so often was the case, there’s some nice subtle work by openside Gleeson initially as he comes the tail of the lineout.

Leinster have clearly identified a possible weakness on the inside shoulder of Toulouse ‘tailgunner’ Jean-Baptiste Élissalde and they leave him even more exposed by bringing Jowitt down from his lineout catch, as if to set up a maul.

As highlighted below, Gleeson then runs a smart blocking line in front of Élissalde coming from the back of the lineout.

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Gleeson gets into Élissalde’s eyeline as Easterby passes to Contepomi, encouraging the Toulouse scrum-half to get a little too eager in pushing out beyond Gleeson.

That means Élissalde over-commits onto Contepomi [white below], leaving space on his inside shoulder for Horgan [red] to burst into.

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As Contepomi passes inside to Horgan, Frédéric Michalak doesn’t get any real contact onto the Leinster out-half to slow him or block his support run upfield, as highlighted in yellow below.

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Meanwhile, O’Driscoll [blue] is fading to the left after running a dummy line out the back of Gordon D’Arcy – who takes a firm hit from Yannick Jauzion in running own decoy outside Contepomi.

Horgan manages to return the ball to Contepomi with an excellent offload before the Leinster playmaker shows his own offloading class.

Himself and O’Driscoll read each other’s intentions in sublime fashion, understanding what the other will do without even a real glance. 

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As Contepomi steps to his right [yellow], back on the inside of the covering Cédric Heymans, O’Driscoll superbly changes his own line to cut across the retreating Vincent Clerc.

Contepomi seems to know O’Driscoll is going to be running the line off his shoulder and hangs up a delightful one-handed offload for his outside centre to scorch onto. O’Driscoll dots down under the posts and Toulouse are rocked as they trail 16-6.

Guy Novès’ side show some attacking class in response, with 22-year-old Yannick Nyanga impressing and Élissalde popping over a penalty, but Leinster are gritty in defence.

A penalty against the French side for failing to roll away allows Contepomi to slot another three points for a 19-9 lead at the half-time break.

The defending champions rally in the third quarter, though, slowly building momentum and reducing the Leinster lead to 19-18 thanks to two more Élissalde penalties and this sharp drop-goal by Michalak.

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It’s an illustration of the class that Michalak so often brought for Toulouse and France, flashes of skill that could change a game.

But there was another side of Michalak and we soon saw it as the 23-year-old first attempted an ambitious chip out of defence that O’Driscoll gathered and kicked ahead, forcing Jauzion over his own tryline as he scrambled back.

And minutes later, Michalak gifted Leinster a try.

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Once again, it’s excellent work from Gleeson who hounds down Michalak after a poor pass from Élissalde.

Michalak backs himself to get out of trouble and nearly steps Gleeson, who does very well to cling onto him.

Rather than accepting the tackle, Michalak then attempts a wildly optimistic offload in the vague direction of Heymans, who is more than 10 metres away, and instead fires the ball directly into the hands of Jowitt advancing from the scrum.

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With Michalak forced to watch from behind his own tryline, Contepomi converts Jowitt’s try for a 26-18 advantage.

Another Élissalde penalty brings Toulouse back to within five points before a truly remarkable passage from the next restart.

The ball stays in play for a total of 1 minutes and 28 seconds that seem a whole lot longer as the game suddenly turns wild.

Jowitt hits Finau Maka for a turnover from the restart, before Gleeson knocks-on as he attempts an offload. Nyanga makes a huge linebreak in response and suddenly Leinster are on the ropes in their 22.

The ball is flashed wide left to an overlap but Horgan shoots in off his wing to stop the ball.

Fullback Girvan Dempsey falls onto the loose ball and everyone expects Leinster to put the ball into touch…

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We see the extent of Leinster’s dedication to heads-up rugby here as they identify an opportunity even under fatigue and down to 14 players with Jowitt injured on the ground.

We can see second row O’Kelly, who was excellent in this game, signalling for the ball to be moved wide left, where Denis Hickie is screaming for it.

Easterby and Contepomi duly oblige and Hickie sets off to score a stunning try.

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Hickie’s pace is important as he burns outside Yannick Bru and beyond Fabien Pelous, but the hard work on the inside from D’Arcy and Contepomi is pivotal too.

Hickie plays a one-two with D’Arcy, as Contepomi’s presence keeps Heymans from tracking further across, and then Hickie shows real sprint endurance to be able to finish outside Clerc in the left corner.

Try

As we can see above, Clerc’s attempt to drag Hickie into touch works against him as the Toulouse wing holds the Leinster man’s right foot up over the touchline rather than down onto the ground.

The TMO review confirms a sensational Leinster score.

31-21 ahead and with Toulouse reeling, Cheika’s men sense their chance to fully kill them off. They seal the deal with another brilliant pre-planned move from a lineout.

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Blaney’s excellent throw finds O’Kelly at the tail and Leinster play off the top of the seven-man lineout, with number eight Jamie Heaslip used to carry on a switch off out-half Contepomi.

The Irish province look set to carry around the corner as tighthead prop Green receives the ball from Easterby, but then the Knox-coached Leinster catch Toulouse off guard once again.

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Having received the return pass from Green, Easterby drops the ball back downfield to D’Arcy swinging from left to right behind the ruck before he throws a left-handed pass wide to Dempsey, skipping the ball beyond Élissalde.

Leinster have caught Toulouse folding hard around the corner, as indicated below, with loosehead Jean-Baptiste Poux even folding after Easterby has passed from the midfield ruck.

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Toulouse are vulnerable back where the passage started at the lineout and Leinster expertly exploit the opportunity.

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While Élissalde does recover to track back onto him, the superb Dempsey shows his attacking quality by flicking away an offload to Horgan on his right.

The presence of hooker Blaney holding the width on the touchline is crucial here, as it ensures Heymans can’t bite in on Horgan.

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That leaves Horgan one-on-one with flanker Grégory Lamboley and the Ireland international beats him before finishing through Heymans’ despairing last ditch tackle attempt – with the clever Heaslip offering inside support just incase Horgan is stopped.

Contepomi converts and soon lands another penalty. Though Toulouse manage to score late tries through Nyanga and Jauzion but they have been beaten by the stunning Leinster effort.

While Cheika’s men couldn’t replicate that display in a humbling 30-6 defeat to eventual champions Munster in the semi-finals, this momentous victory away to Toulouse marked them out as future giants of European rugby.

On tomorrow’s episode of The42 Rugby Weekly Extra, we turn our attention towards Munster’s Heineken Cup win over Gloucester at Thomond Park in 2003.

The victory was dubbed ‘The Miracle Match’ after Munster won by four clear tries and a minimum of 27 points – exactly what they had needed to progress out of their pool. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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