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Leinster's double-double hopes remain alive as Cullen's men hit their straps

Rob Kearney knows the province are in for a ‘special’ final against Saracens next month.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium 

THIS WAS LEINSTER BACK in big-game mode, Leo Cullen’s defending champions clinically and surgically dismantling Toulouse with the level of mastery and quality we had not seen this season.

This was Leinster of yesteryear, of 2018 vintage, as the province proved far too hot for the Top 14 leaders under glorious Dublin skies to set up a shot at Saracens in Newcastle next month. 

Leinster team huddle after the game Leinster's post-match huddle. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster were on it from the off. All of the pre-game reservations — the form of key players, the lack of cohesion, the lack of winning momentum — were blown away inside the opening exchanges, as the hosts went about dominating this semi-final tie.

From their stoic resistance during a breathless opening salvo from Toulouse, to a probing attacking passage in the build-up to James Lowe’s try, to Johnny Sexton’s audacious 45-metre drop-goal attempt, Leinster were confident and humming. 

The opening score was mesmerising. The set-piece strike move set the ball rolling, the forwards punched holes with strong carries, a series of link passes and precise offloads maintained the momentum, and then Lowe’s box-office brilliance in the corner. 

Sexton was back, Seán O’Brien was back, Robbie Henshaw was back, Devin Toner was back, Leinster were back. And Toulouse, who were suffocated, strangled and kept try-less, found themselves second best in every facet. 

Sexton’s composure, decision-making and execution guided Leinster towards victory, as the pack bullied a gigantic opposition through their set-piece excellence and work-rate on both sides of the ball, with O’Brien, Scott Fardy, James Ryan and Jack Conan all immense.

This was undoubtedly Leinster’s best performance of the season and while there is still more to come, it bodes well for Cullen’s side heading into their fifth European final that they are nearing top gear.

“When you don’t have that level of games and continuity as a team you always sort of question a little bit how much on the money are we going to be,” Rob Kearney admitted afterwards.

“We trained really well last week but there is only so much training you can do as a team. When the weekend does come, you’re still a little bit unsure as to how much fluidity you’re going to have because you haven’t played for so long.

“That aspect was probably the most pleasing for us, how quickly we gelled as a team considering the stop-start nature of the last few weeks.

“You generally know [if you're at it] by the training, the week’s prep you’ve had and the atmosphere in the squad as you’re getting on the bus. All those little things. The warm-up is a huge thing, so you can generally tell the day of a game if a team are there or not.”

Thankfully for Leinster, their big-game players rose to the occasion to keep their hopes of a remarkable double-double alive, with Cullen’s side again challenging on two fronts as we head towards May. 

“The prospect of a double-double is what you set out for at the start of the year but we still have a fair bit of work to do before then,” Kearney continued.

Max Deegan and James Lowe celebrate at the final whistle The province march on to Newcastle. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There’ll probably be a few changes for Ulster [in the Pro14] next weekend. It’s all eyes towards Sarries now, isn’t it? They are a pretty special team and it will be a proper final, they will give us a real test.

“It is going to be special, they are a superb side, one of the best in Europe over the last few years but we are very pleased with the step up we took from the quarter-final but we are going to need another step again. We’re going in the right direction.”

After next weekend’s visit to Belfast in the final game of the Pro14 regular season, Leinster have a week off ahead of the Champions Cup decider against Sarries at St James’ Park on Saturday 11 May. 

The English Premiership side, who on Saturday crushed Munster’s European dreams with an overpowering semi-final win of their own, will pose a formidable threat to Leinster’s hopes of claiming a record fifth star.

“It’ll be a little bit of both,” Kearney says, when asked if the tactic will be to focus on what Leinster do best or try and contain Saracens in the final.

Obviously, our strategy will change a little bit depending on the opposition we’re playing. They’ve got a big pack, some big runners. There is a big game-plan there of physicality and go-forward which we’re going to need to contain.

“Their kicking game was superb against Munster. I felt a little bit bad for the Munster back three at times because Sarries were going up just to break ball and if a man is going up to do that, it’s very hard to take a clean catch.

“We’ve seen a little bit of an insight into their exit strategy and it’s something we’re going to have to work on in the next couple of weeks.

“But I’d like to think we’ve got a little bit more squad depth this year and while we’ve lost a couple of players and we’ve had a few injuries this year, today we were very comfortable out there.

“Guys were very sure in each other’s ability and we never looked under too much pressure. They had their purple patches but I’m still trying to weigh up if Toulouse didn’t really play their best game today or if we didn’t let them do it.

“It’s probably a combination of both.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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