Next Level

Sublime Leinster dethrone Toulouse to march into Champions Cup final

The only major blot on a brilliant day for Leo Cullen’s men was the injury to Tadhg Furlong.

Leinster 40

Toulouse 17

THE DRIVE FOR five looks close to irresistible at this point. There is one more big hurdle for Leinster to clear in their bid to be kings of Europe once again but this was a convincing statement of intent as they dethroned Toulouse on a glorious day in Dublin.

Captain Johnny Sexton was able to intelligently direct proceedings from his throne behind a smart, abrasive, skillful Leinster pack as Leo Cullen’s side played at a tempo Toulouse couldn’t live with at times.

johnny-sexton-celebrates-josh-van-der-fliers-try Leinster captain Johnny Sexton celebrates as his side secure their place in the final. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

There is no doubt the French side were heavily fatigued by last weekend’s 100 minutes of action and penalty shoot-out in their quarter-final against Munster, and credit to them for battling but Leinster were dominant as they scored four tries in front of a vocal crowd of 42,067 at the Aviva.

Leinster march on to their first Champions Cup final since losing to Saracens in the 2019 decider and will meet the winner of tomorrow’s second semi-final between French sides La Rochelle and Racing 92 in Marseille in two weekends’ time.

The only major blip on a brilliant afternoon for Leinster was the sight of influential tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong limping off after 17 minutes with help from the medical team, having played glorious rugby up to that point – playmaking with his range of passing and dominating with his physicality.

There is also concern for hooker Rónan Kelleher, who was forced off in the 47th minute for a head injury assessment, and James Lowe took a knock in the final minute, but Leinster do have a fortnight to recover before the final in Marseille on 28 May. The fact that they are already assured of top spot in the URC means Cullen can rotate his front-liners out for next weekend’s home clash with Munster.

If they play like this again in the final, Leinster will be very hard to beat. Some of their passages of attack were pretty much total rugby as forwards and backs linked at high speed and Toulouse were left chasing shadows. Leinster led 23-10 at half-time but that really could have been more given the frequency with which they stretched Toulouse.

leinster-huddle-during-the-game Leinster were largely dominant at the Aviva. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Left wing James Lowe scored a brace of tries, Josh van der Flier added one of his own in the first half, and Hugo Keenan crossed late on, while Sexton was 100% off the tee as he slotted 15 points before making way for Ross Byrne. 

Leinster’s kicking game was sharp too, with Lowe’s left boot eating up huge metres, and they defended with aggression, work-rate, and organisation to complement their exciting attacking effort.

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park continued his eye-catching form for Cullen’s side, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose did damage in midfield, while the second row pairing of Ross Molony – particularly superb – and James Ryan were at the forefront of a combative and technically excellent effort from the Leinster pack. 

They probably got more of the decisions from referee Karl Dickson – number eight Jack Conan was lucky to escape yellow in the second half – but their dominance was inarguable as they laid down an impressive demonstration of their credentials for a fifth Champions Cup trophy, which would draw them level with Toulouse.

Leinster’s concession of two scrum penalties is perhaps one area of concern for Cullen and his coaching staff to address in the next two weeks, the head coach always eager to drive his team to get better. They’re already very, very good.

antoine-dupont-scores-the-opening-try Antoine Dupont scored an early try against the run of play. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster started in awesome fashion, stringing together powerful phases down in Toulouse’s 22 in the opening minutes to earn three penalty advantages in the one passage, with Sexton opting to stick over the three points from in front of the posts. 

Cullen’s men were soon threatening again on turnover possession as Furlong swung a truly delightful 25-metre pass off his right hand to send Keenan slaloming past three defenders deep into the Toulouse half. A try looked highly likely even after he was cut down but Gibson-Park tried to roll a grubber in behind, Antoine Dupont blocked it, the ball fell kindly for him and the Toulouse scrum-half scooped it up to sprint clear from 90 metres.

Thomas Ramos’ conversion had the visitors four points up but the setback was only brief for Leinster. Furlong’s sublime tip-on pass sent Caelan Doris through for another break as Toulouse read out the back onto Sexton, but the flanker couldn’t link to Keenan, firing an unsympathetic pass off the fullback’s shoulder for a knock-on.

Opportunity soon beckoned wide on the left off a sharp set-piece strike but Sexton skipped Jimmy O’Brien to hit Lowe when straight hands might have done it, although Leinster kept at that passage and Toulouse lock Emmanuel Meafou was pinged for not releasing in the tackle and Sexton brought the scoreline back to 6-7 off the tee.

Two minutes later, Leinster had the try that had been coming. Pierre Fouyssac was offside as he picked up a ball that bobbled from a ruck and Sexton opted to go into the left corner. The maul was stopped short but punishing carries from Henshaw, Furlong, and van der Flier allowed Sexton to swing into the shortside and play a smart inside pass for Lowe to barrell over.

james-lowe-scores-a-try James Lowe scored Leinster's first try. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Having dusted himself off, Sexton slotted the conversion for 13-7. Leinster lost Furlong to that worrying injury but it didn’t stop them from putting together what was simply a passage of total rugby for their second try.

It stemmed from a kick return by Keenan, with Molony playing a superb pullback pass to Sexton, who sold Rory Arnold down the river with a big dummy, broke through, then picked out a delicious inside pass to van der Flier, whose finish through Juan Cruz Mallia’s tackle included a hint of double movement but was approved by Dickson. Sexton’s extras had Leinster 20-7 to the good after a relentlessly high-paced first quarter.

It was unlikely Leinster could have maintained that tempo but they were frustrated to see Conan knock-on the restart, then give up a scrum penalty for not driving straight that they will probably argue with. Ramos popped over three points to stem the tide.

A turnover penalty at the breakdown from captain Julien Marchand helped Toulouse to grab a little more momentum but it didn’t last long as their attack struggled to make real dents in the Leinster defence.

Soon after a huge touch-finder from Lowe, Meafou was penalised for going off his feet in clearing out Gibson-Park, a touch harshly perhaps, and Sexton extended the Leinster lead back out to 23-10.

Meafou was soon in the sin bin after a far more clear and obvious infringement, tackling Gibson-Park from an offside position as Toulouse scrambled in their 22, having just been cut apart by Sexton freeing Ringrose for a scything break off yet another classy pullback pass, this time from Doris.

leinster-fans-celebrate-james-lowes-try Leinster had a vocal crowd roaring them on. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster went into the right corner and won another penalty as Toulouse collapsed their first maul effort, but then they missed their second shot as Henshaw broke the offside line in joining the maul too early.

The 23-10 lead at the break was still a happy place to be, although a second scrum penalty concession early in the second half against Andrew Porter was a slight cause for concern for Cullen and co. – even if it was immediately followed by a Ryan lineout steal.

Keenan did superbly to regain a Sexton bomb off that turnover and Leinster were soon threatening near the Toulouse tryline only for Gibson-Park’s long pass wide left to be picked off by Romain Ntamack, who grubber-kicked ahead and was tripped by Conan as he chased back. Dickson checked with his TMO and decided it was accidental, so there was no sanction for Conan – more than a touch fortunate for the Leinster number eight.

The superb Molony was next to win a lineout for Cullen’s side and it sparked their third try, finished by Lowe on the left in the 50th minute off passes from Gibson-Park and Sexton. In between the lineout and the try, the relentless Gibson-Park blocked down an attempted Toulouse exit kick to put his side back on the front foot.

The faultless Sexton converted for a 20-point margin in Leinster’s favour and they were intent on continuing to bring the defensive heat too, sub hooker Dan Sheehan delivering a thunderous hit the next time Toulouse visited their 22.

james-lowe-scores-a-try James Lowe had an easy finish for his second. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Toulouse nearly always fire a shot, though, and they finally managed to breach the Leinster defence from close-range via their maul with replacement back row Selevasio Tolofua the man to finish it off.

Although Sexton ran out to Dickson to protest about a possible foot in touch, Toulouse fullback Ramos calmly slotted the conversion from close to the right-hand touchline for 30-17 with less than 15 minutes remaining.

Leinster were calm enough to nip any sense of a late comeback in the bud, playing on top of Toulouse again and then smartly opting to take three points from a penalty in front of the posts with six minutes left, replacement out-half Byrne doing the honours there.

Leinster had one final spurt of attacking prowess as Lowe chased a kick down the right to regather, injuring himself in the process, and they recycled to shift the ball infield for Keenan to break between two would-be tackles for their fourth, converted by Byrne.

This was utterly convincing stuff from Leinster.

Leinster scorers:

Tries: James Lowe [2], Josh van der Flier, Hugo Keenan

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3], Ross Byrne [1 from 1]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3], Ross Byrne [1 from 1]

Toulouse scorers:

Tries: Antoine Dupont, Selevasio Tolofua

Conversions: Thomas Ramos [2 from 2]

Penalties: Thomas Ramos [1 from 1]

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien; Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw (Ciarán Frawley ’65), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain) (Ross Byrne ’68), Jamison Gibson-Park (Luke McGrath ’68); Andrew Porter (Cian Healy ’68), Rónan Kelleher (HIA – Dan Sheehan ’47), Tadhg Furlong (Michael Ala’alatoa ’17); Ross Molony, James Ryan (Joe McCarthy ’76); Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier (Rhys Ruddock ‘), Jack Conan.

TOULOUSE: Thomas Ramos; Juan Cruz Mallia; Pierre Fouyssac (Zack Holmes ’62), Pita Ahki (Martin Page-Relo ’66); Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille (Rodrigue Neti ’52, reversal ’70), Julien Marchand (captain) (Peato Mauvaka ’52), Dorian Aldegheri (David Ainuʻu ’56); Rory Arnold (Thibaud Flament ’56), Emmanuel Meafou (yellow card ’37) (Joe Tekori ’62); Rynhardt Elstadt, François Cros, Anthony Jelonch (Selevasio Tolofua ’52).

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU].

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