Leinster fall at the final hurdle again as Toulouse take sixth Champions Cup title

Antoine Dupont was the difference between the sides as French side prevail after extra-time

Champions Cup final: Leinster 22 Toulouse 31 (aet, 15-15 after 80 mins)

A wonderful, slightly wild, savagely intense and physical game, tactically intriguing and compelling, amid a deafening din in warm sunshine which went to extra time and beyond, this epic occasion revisited the World Cup and outdid any Six Nations game.

Of course, the narrative would have been altogether different had Ciarán Frawley’s 80th minute drop goal attempt – a minute after calmly levelling the final with a tricky penalty – been a couple of metres to the right. He’d have been the hero, his name indelibly etched in his province’s and Champions Cup folklore, while Leinster would have been hailed for their resilience, stamina, will to win, scrum dominance, kick-chase game and plenty else besides.

Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Joe McCarthy and Caelan Doris put in phenomenal shifts which didn’t deserve another runners-up medal. Leinster had almost 60 per cent possession and territory, played twice as much ball-in-hand rugby, with Toulouse making 242 tackles to 137 and scrambling brilliantly for their lives.

Hence, although James Lowe was a constant threat and Robbie Henshaw went to the well and carried strongly, much of the review will focus on the lack of X factor or spark in a Leinster attack which has not fired as well in this campaign as it has in previous seasons.


When Joe Schmidt first landed in Leinster his stated, eyebrow-raising aim was to help make them the best passing team in Europe, and so it came to pass. This cannot be said of them this season or in this final, albeit the many errors on both sides were often the product of the most intense pressure.

Regrets, Leinster will have a few and another huge source of debate will be their decision to turn down three-pointers and go to the corner, thrice early on without reward and again at junctures throughout.

By contrast, blessed with the largely unerring long-range accuracy of first Blair Kinghorn and then Thomas Ramos, Toulouse’s clear policy from the outset was to maximise their ability on the 93-metre long football pitch and so keep the scoreboard ticking in a cup final.

Although Leinster had marginally the better of a high penalty count (16-15), Matthew Carley’s trigger-happy approach at the breakdown probably suited Ben Willis et al better, albeit a couple of his decisions were both harsh and debatable. Jamie Osborne not rolling away was one, and the same player being pinged for his clear-out on Antoine Dupont after a huge carry by Dan Sheehan spring to mind.

With Toulouse also winning more of the collisions, this all contributed to the critical turnover count of 19-13 against Leinster while denying them quick ball. What’s more, 10 of the 15 penalties against them were within kicking range, with Kinghorn and Ramos landing eight of them.

Given Leinster landed all five of the penalties when Caelan Doris pointed to the posts, there’s a compelling case to be made that Leo Cullen’s side should have adopted the same approach as Toulouse.

Yet not only does hindsight have 20-20 vision, a little perspective is needed here too. After the final in Marseille two seasons ago, Johnny Sexton had a stream of consciousness about their decision to go for the posts on seven occasions rather than go to the corner, and many were of the same view, that Leinster did not roll the dice enough.

Furthermore, in last season’s final Leinster’s tactic of going to the corner early on paid a rich dividend in the shape of a three-try salvo in the opening dozen minutes. Nobody questioned the approach then.

It was entirely understandable that Leinster twice declined shots at goal from kickable positions to go to the corner in another attempt to make an early statement before, on the third occasion, they opted for Ross Byrne to open their account.

While Toulouse successfully defended three close-range mauls, and more thereafter, the pressure did lead to a clean break by Lowe but he was unable to link with Jamison Gibson-Park. McCarthy and Lowe also had touchdowns ruled out for perceived knock-ons.

But had Leinster’s initial approach paid off, Leinster would have been hailed for their bravery, as has been the case in the past, and as when Ireland did so on Six Nations’ opening night in the Stade Velodrome.

In the second half, after the maul was held up following another penalty to the corner, it did lead to a penalty in front of the posts which Byrne kicked to make it 12-12. So the tactic was not entirely without reward, and also led to Josh van der Flier’s close-range try in over-time in the first period of extra time after he had initially broke off the catch-and-drive.

Yet unlike a year ago in the final, Leinster’s mauls, while gaining traction, lacked the variety and trick plays which we normally associate with them and like much of what they threw at Toulouse, the French standard bearers seemed to see it coming.

Ultimately, as in so many finals, aside from Frawley’s drop goal the margins were tiny, with Dupont the difference as he so often is. Here there were a high volume of big plays on both sides of the ball as well as couple of 50/22s which led to three-pointers and came off by inches.

But when you have a generational player in your team you always have a chance, and no one feeds of that belief better than his team-mates.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 5 mins: Kinghorn pen 0-3; 8: Kinghorn pen, 0-6; 19: Byrne pen 3-6; 37: Kinghorn pen 3-9; 40+3: Byrne pen 6-9; (half-time 6-9); 47: Byrne pen 9-9; 58: Kinghorn pen 9-12; 71: Ramos pen 12-15; 78: Frawley pen 15-15; (80 mins 15-15); 83: Lebel try, Ramos con 15-22; 84: Ramos pen 15-25; 90+3: Van der Flier try, Frawley con 22-25 (half-time extra-time: 22-25); 93: Ramos pen 22-28; 95: Ramos pen 22-31.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, Jason Jenkins; Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Caelan Doris (capt).

Replacements: James Ryan for Jenkins (h-t); Josh van der Flier for Connors (45 mins); Jack Conan for Baird (59); Ciarán Frawley for Byrne (65); Rónan Kelleher for Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (both 70); Cian Healy for Porter (89); Porter for Healy (90+2 temp). Not used: Luke McGrath.

Sinbinned: Lowe (82 mins).

TOULOUSE: Blair Kinghorn; Juan Cruz Mallia, Paul Costes, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, Dorian Aldegheri; Thibaud Flament, Emmanuel Meafou; Jack Willis, François Cros, Alexandre Roumat.

Replacements: Santiago Chocobares for Ahki (23 mins); Julien Marchand for Mauvaka, Joel Merkler for Aldegheri, Richie Arnold for Meafou (all 55); Rodrigue Neti for Baille, Thomas Ramos for Costes (both 59); Joshua Brennan for Cros (69); Meafou for Brennan (84); Paul Graou for Mallia (90+3); Mauvaka for Marchand (96).

Red card: Arnold (90 mins).

Referee: Matthew Carley (England).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times