Murray Kinsella reports from Toulouse
JUST BEFORE KICK-off at a bouncing Stade Ernest Wallon, pink smoke was released to add to an already thrilling atmosphere.
The acrid smell of the smoke drifted up into the stands and seemed to serve as a warning that a true battle lay ahead.
The colour pink might have hinted that it was to involve plenty of stunning rugby, but few would have imagined that Leinster would emerge on the wrong side of a classic European contest in front of 17,852 supporters.
The volume from the home crowd was deafening at times as Leinster were brought crashing down to earth following last weekend’s rout of Wasps.
Toulouse played like the club’s great side of the early 2000s, offloading more than 20 times and cutting Leinster to shreds at times with ball in hand, 31-year-old wing Maxime Médard scoring twice and outside centre Sofiane Guitoune also dotting down.
23-year-old fullback Thomas Ramos, one of an exciting crop of new talent, was assured off the tee in kicking the rest of their points, helping Toulouse to end Leinster’s winning run in Europe at 10 games.
Toulouse finished over the top of Leinster, having lost the lead for the first time in the game in the 53rd minute, dispelling any notion that the Irish province would prove fitter and more composed in the end game.
Leo Cullen’s Leinster have much to work on, with their defence proving a great disappointment against Toulouse’s sizzling footwork and ambition in attack, while their failure to do more with almost 60% of the possession will be a cause for frustration.
Toulouse move to the top of Pool 1 with their victory, although a losing bonus point leaves Leinster only two points behind them overall.
Cullen and his team will be confident of rebounding in their December back-to-back ties with Bath, but this was a timely reminder for everyone that Wasps’ weak effort in round one is nothing like the challenge Leinster will face from here on.
Toulouse were on the scoreboard within two minutes, Ramos slotting three points after James Lowe was penalised for taking Cheslin Kolbe out in the air.
He doubled that advantage soon after, when Robbie Henshaw dove off his feet at ruck time moments after he was rattled in the tackle by opposite number Romain Ntamack, spilling possession in the process.
Kolbe’s footwork was threatening but Leinster appeared to have settled before a loose Sean Cronin offload found Toulouse flanker Alban Placines, who offloaded to hooker and captain Julien Marchand to sprint into the visitors’ 22, stopped only by the despairing Larmour.
Toulouse were calm, however, and two phases later, scrum-half Sébastien Bezy floated a pass wide left and over the head of Joe Tomane to allow Médard to finish for 11-0 with only 13 minutes played.
An offside penalty from Leinster allowed Toulouse to push it out to a 14-point lead before the quarter mark as Ramos found the target again. Leinster lost Josh van der Flier to injury in the same passage, resulting in Sean O’Brien being introduced.
Finally, Johnny Sexton got Leinster off the mark in the 22nd minute, firing over a penalty after Toulouse came offside, just before a heated scuffle involving Larmour, Kolbe and Lowe broke out on the touchline, Toulouse boss Ugo Mola separating the players.
Sexton added another three points for Leinster just before the half-hour had elapsed, punishing Joe Tekori for not rolling away from the tackle – a penalty that had been coming.
Leinster weren’t clinical enough with their first proper visit to the Toulouse 22, Tomane forcing an offload attempt – Kolbe defended it well, to be fair – and knocking-on after a crooked throw into the lineout by Cronin had been missed.
But Cullen’s side were more clinical with their next attack, Henshaw and Luke McGrath making metres down the right, before the ball was swept left and Sexton dropped off a switch pass for Jack Conan.
The dynamic number eight beat the tackle attempts of Clément Castets and Marchand and burst into the 22, cleverly dissuading the back-tracking Kolbe from engaging him with a hint of a dummy pass, before offloading to O’Brien as Ramos scragged him.
O’Brien finished and Sexton’s conversion would have left Leinster trailing only 14-13 at the break, but the Irish province switched off one more time before Wayne Barnes’ half-time whistle.
Conan knocked-on just outside their 22 and from the resulting possession off scrum, Toulouse number eight Selevasio Tolofua left O’Brien on the ground with some superb footwork, then offloaded to centre Sofiane Guitoune.
Larmour was the last man in behind but Guitoune put on another show of footwork to step inside him and score to the left of the posts, Ramos’ conversion leaving Toulouse 21-13 to the good at the interval.
Leinster controlled the opening minutes of the second period, with James Lowe’s influence growing, and pressured Toulouse into a key penalty, Kolbe pinged for failing to roll away, then Marchand getting his side marched back another 10m for throwing the ball away.
Leinster went to the left corner and though their maul was repelled, they were patient through a handful of phases, O’Brien going close just before Ryan hammered his way over with Ruddock and Furlong latching on powerfully.
Sexton’s conversion brought Leinster back to within a point and though Toulouse did threaten again thanks to two consecutive grubber kicks from Zack Holmes and Ramos – the TMO review showed that Kolbe’s head had knocked the ball head in a race with Lowe for the second – Cullen’s side could sense their opportunity to finally edge in front.
An intelligent long grubber kick from Henshaw that rolled into touch metres out from the Toulouse tryline was important, with the subsequent pressure allowing Leinster to build towards their third try.
Toner and O’Brien were among the strong carriers this time and, with scrum advantage playing for a Toulouse knock-on in defence, Sexton hit hooker Sean Cronin with an inside pass.
The explosive Ireland international slipped out of Charlie Faumuina’s tackle attempt and scorched underneath the posts, carrying Holmes and Ramos over with him and allowing Sexton to convert – Leinster finally in front at 27-21.
Still, Toulouse kept coming at Leinster, replacement out-half Antoine Dupont chipping into their 22 and very nearly nudging the descending ball towards the tryline with his second touch with the boot.
The oft-expected dip in the closing quarter from the French side was failing to materialise and the thrilling Dupoint continuing to stretch the Leinster defence without it ever reaching breaking point.
That came in the 70th minute as McGrath’s pass close to the Toulouse 22-metre line was intercepted by reaplcement back row Louis-Benoit Madaule, who strode up towards halfway and found Huget burning up on his right shoulder.
Huget offloaded beeautifully to Placines, who tipped the ball onto Bezy and the scrum-half fired a pass wide to his left to allow Médard to finish a stunning try untouched.
Ramos nailed the conversion from out to the left to send Toulouse back in front at 28-27.
The fullback had a chance to extend the lead in the 72nd minute after Luke McGrath knocked-on and Leinster sub hooker James Tracy picked the ball up in an offside position, but Ramos was wide and short with his effort.
The Top 14 side actually opted to turn down a shot at goal in the closing minutes as they pursued a bonus-point try but even though Leinster held them out, they could do little to prevent Stade Ernest Wallon erupting in joy at the final whistle.
Pool 1 just got very interesting.
Tries: Maxime Médard , Sofiane Guitoune
Conversions: Thomas Ramos [2 from 3]
Penalties: Thomas Ramos [3 from 3]
Tries: Sean O’Brien, James Ryan, Sean Cronin
Conversions: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3]
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2]
TOULOUSE: Thomas Ramos; Cheslin Kolbe, Sofiane Guitoune, Romain Ntamack (Yoann Huget ’23), Maxime Médard; Zack Holmes (Antoine Dupont ’55), Sébastien Bézy; Clément Castets (David Ainu’u ’61), Julien Marchand (Leonardo Ghiraldini ’55), Charlie Faumuina (Maks Van Dyk ’55); Florian Verhaeghe, Joe Tekori (Louis-Benoit Madaule ’57); Rynhardt Elstadt, Alban Placine, Selevasio Tolofua.
Replacements: Pierre Gayraud, Arthur Bonneval.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Joe Tomane, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath (Nick McCarthy ’74); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’55), Seán Cronin (James Tracy ’56), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter ’56); Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock (Scott Fardy ’66), Josh van der Flier (Seán O’Brien ’18), Jack Conan.
Replacements: Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].
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