Leinster beat Toulouse and in truth, it could’ve been a 50-pointer

Aside from turnover try and another off a catch-and-drive, Toulouse hardly threatened

Leinster 40 Toulouse 17

As the ever-sprightly Hugo Keenan slalomed through heavy-legged Toulouse players in the game's final act, the thought occurred that Leinster's biggest semi-final win, and the largest the tournament has witnessed in eight years, perhaps gave a slightly flattering glow to the final scoreline. But on reflection, not really.

Aside from one turnover try and another off a catch-and-drive, Toulouse hardly threatened. Apart from the scrum, following Tadhg Furlong’s disconcerting departure after a sublime 17 minutes featuring a 20-metre plus skip pass, the dethroned champions were pretty much beaten in every department.

By contrast, Caelan Doris fired his pass to the supporting Keenan at the fullback's head after his break from Furlong's tip-on, Robbie Henshaw prematurely joined a maul that would have ended the contest by half-time and Jamison Gibson-Park's attempted floater to an unmarked James Lowe was picked off by Romain Ntamack.

In truth, it could have been a 50-pointer, but no harm that it wasn’t.

Those missed opportunities will provide much of the focus for their Monday morning review and in their preparations for the final two weeks’ hence, mindful as they will be that margins in finals - such as the last two they competed in 2018 and 2019 - tend to be very fine.

Gibson-Park was also culpable for the Antoine Dupont try when shinning his attempted blindside grubber, two rare errors that are almost inevitable given the speed with which Leinster recycle the ball and his own speed to the breakdown, and hence the need for his generally excellent decision-making.

Leinster's tempo, the ability of Doris, Jack Conan, Henshaw, Dan Sheehan and co to win the collisions, helped by superb footwork, and the skillset of forwards and backs close to the line were simply too hot for Toulouse to handle.

Outside Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton gave another masterclass, and in addition to kicking six from six, he had three try-scoring assists.

For the first he faded wide to take Gibson-Park’s pass to create the gap inside for Lowe to fall over the line. For the third his floated pass to Lowe was fairly routine and the reward for the carrying of Lowe, Michael Ala’alatoa, Doris and Sheehan, and the ruthless Leinster clear-outs.

The pick, undoubtedly, was his second try assist when taking a lovely pull-back by Ross Molony - who assumed Furlong's playmaking mantle in open play with his unheralded distribution skills - and making a clean break with a dummy to Doris which Rory Arnold bought hook, line and sinker.

In times past Sexton might have taken on the last man, Romain Ntamack, himself but he slowed down, weighed up his options and passed left for the supporting Joash van der Flier to score his 11th try of the season in 20 games for province or country.

“I certainly didn’t back myself to go the distance,” reflected Sexton with a rueful smile. “I thought about chipping it but then Stu (Lancaster) would have killed me if I did. I just saw the red scrum-hat and know the form he (van der Flier) has been in, if I could get it to the red scrum-hat he’d score. He’s been incredible for the last few months, incredible performance again by him.”

Brace

From a combined distance of about eight metres, and untouched, Lowe won’t have an easier brace in his career, but even so it took his tally in this season’s tournament to 10 in six games, in addition to six assists.

He has now scored 47 tries in 64 games for Leinster, 13 of them coming in his last eight appearances for the province, a hot streak which means he's scored 18 tries in 18 games for Leinster and Ireland this season. For his and Leinster's sake, one fervently hopes the injury to his leg which he sustained with his final carry in the build-up to Keenan's try heals quickly. Few teams, even Leinster, have a player with his game-breaking skills or a winger who simply contributes so much.

Lowe’s strength close to the touchline enables him to take hits and stay infield more than most, and this again allowed Leinster to play to the left edge frequently. It’s a key part of their game. Their attack makes the pitch look big.

Lowe’s left boot, and the variety of Sexton’s kicking, also went a long way toward helping Leinster to win the kicking game, their net gain of over 1,000 metres from 29 kicks out of hand was helped by a couple of chases by Gibson-Park.

But Lowe used this mighty weapon intelligently too. In filling their defensive line in order to withstand Leinster’s quickfire, phased attacks, Toulouse left space at the back which Lowe exploited from the off with a deft grubber which led to Sexton’s opening three-pointer, and his up-and-under led to Sexton’s third penalty.

The pre-match feeling that Leinster would be much the fresher given the more sympathetic game management of their players proved well founded. Toulouse played with the resilience of true European champions but not the energy or sharpness of a year ago when completing the double.

Their core of French Grand Slammers have played a huge volume of top-end games and it showed. While Dupont had his moment, and both he and Ntamack looked dangerous on the rare occasions they were able to play on the front foot, the world’s best player was well shackled by van der Flier and co, and ditto Ntamack, whose punts down the middle achieved little save for keeping the ball in play that bit longer and affording Keenan ample counter-attacking opportunities.

In fact two rather aimless kicks by Ntamack and Dupont into the grateful arms of Sexton eventually led to the first-half tries by Lowe and van der Flier. This tactic was all the more curious given Ugo Mola’s admission afterwards that the average ball in play time in the Top 14, around 32 minutes per match, ill prepares them for high-end European rugby, closer to 40 minutes.

Still, it was nice hearing Mola’s lament, especially with the final in mind.

Scoring sequence - 5 mins: Sexton pen 3-0; 7 mins: Dupont try, Ramos con 3-7; 13 mins: Sexton pen 6-7; 15 mins: Lowe try, Sexton con 13-7; 20 mins: van der Flier try, Sexton con 20-7; 24 mins: Ramos pen 20-10; 33 mins: Sexton pen 23-10; (half-time: 23-10); 50 mins: Lowe try, Sexton con 30-10; 66 mins: Tolofua try, Ramos con 30-17; 74 mins: Byrne pen 33-17; 79 mins: Keenan try, Byrne con 40-17.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Michael Ala'alatoa for Furlong (17 mins), Dan Sheehan for Kelleher (47 mins), Ciaran Frawley for Henshaw (65 mins), Cian Healy for Porter, Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne for Sexton (all 68 mins), Rhys Ruddock for van der Flier (73 mins), Joe McCarthy for Ryan (76 mins).

STADE TOULOUSAIN: Thomas Ramos; Juan Cruz Mallía, Pierre Fouyssac, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand (capt), Dorian Aldegheri; Rory Arnold, Emmanuel Meafou; Rynhardt Elstadt, Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka for Marchand, Rodrigue Neti for Baille, Selevasio Tolofua for Jelonch (all 52 mins), David Ainu'u for Aldegheri, Thibaud Flament for Arnold (both 57 mins), Joe Tekori for Meafou, Zack Holmes for Foussac (both 63 mins), Martin Page Relo for Ahki (66 mins), Baille for Neti (70 mins). Yellow card: Meafou (37-47 mins).

Referee: Karl Dickson (England)

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