Leinster bow out of Heineken Cup after long and painful day
Matt O’Connor’s side well beaten as defence is carved apart by Toulon
Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll is tackled by Matt Giteau during the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Toulon at the Felix Mayol Stadium, Toulon. Photograph: Getty Images
In temperatures around the early 20s under clear blue skies, the travelling 3,000 or so Leinster fans in the 15,252 crowd (Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal happily turning down another €500,000 to keep the game in their own febrile lair rather than move the tie to Marseilles) were given little to cheer. This was Leinster’s heaviest defeat in Europe since losing 33-6 in Toulouse in their final pool game in 2007.
The scrum had been identified as a key factor in the game but ultimately Leinster emerged unscathed from there, only to suffer in virtually all other aspects of this contest. Leinster had hoped to generate a quick tempo but were repeatedly prevented from doing so by the competitiveness of Steffon Armitage and co at the breakdown, where they could perhaps quibble with some of Wayne Barnes’ interpretations about players competing on their feet.
In truth, Leinster were fairly toothless and impotent, and that 40-7 win away to Northampton looks now even more of a one-off as well as a season high so far. What really surprised was the manner in which their defence was carved apart by Mathieu Bastareaud, a human wrecking ball again, the evergreen Juan Smith, lively scrumhalf Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Matt Giteau, whose move to outhalf after Jonny Wilkinson’s hamstring went sharpened their attack even more.
In all, Leinster missed a staggering 26 tackles, with the famed Gordon D’Arcy-Brian O’Driscoll not having one of its best days in the sun, as against ten by Toulon, who also made seven line breaks to the visitors’ two, and made 17 offloads to just three by Leinster.
The pivotal selections of Richardt Strauss, Shane Jennings and Jimmy Gopperth did not work out as Matt O’Connor would have hoped although frankly, it’s hard to imagine what selection would have made much discernible difference. Few of Leinster’s number played well, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin Reddan being the two obvious exceptions.
The best thing about the first-half from Leinster’s viewpoint was undoubtedly the scoreline, for six-all hardly gave a hint of the traffic flow in a largely one-sided opening half. The home side made regular inroads deep into Leinster territory but despite the perfect conditions, a combination of their own handling errors and Leinster’s scrambling and breakdown work meant that from four visits to within ten metres of the line Toulon returned with no reward.
Smith and Bastareaud seemed to be everywhere, running into or through blue shirts repeatedly. The latter immediately put Toulon onto the front when latching onto Dave Kearney’s palm down from a Jimmy Gopperth crosskick. Bastareaud rumbled again, the excellent Tillous-Borde and Juan Smith also making inroads as the latter broke Mike McCarthy’s tackle.
Jennings eventually brought him down but at the expense of a penalty which Wilkinson landed. Smith, Bastareaud and co kept coming, helped by the first of two Strauss overthrows and three lost lineouts in that opening half, and Leinster were indebted to Rob Kearney intercepting David Smith’s pass to Giteau as the first of a three-man overlap, a few meaty hits by Ruddock and then to a O’Driscoll turnover and relieving kick, although even the great man was gasping in that opening quarter.
Although Dave Kearney appeared to be hit in the air by Delon Armitage, instead Wayne Barnes penalised Jennings again at the next breakdown and Wilkinson doubled the lead. But when Xavier Chiocci illegally drove up and across at a scrum, as he tended to do, Gopperth opener Leinster’s account with their first full penalty in the 20th minute.
Soon though, McCarthy missed Giteau and Leinster were indebted to a couple more spillages by Toulon, as well as any stoppages. One of those was for the old stagers, Wilkinson and O’Driscoll, with the latter standing to his feet quicker and the former eventually hobbling off with a thigh strain as Gopperth drew the sides level.
But with the inventive Giteau moving to outhalf it made little difference, even if he was wide from half-way nearing half-way before Dannie Rossouw bounced Jennings.
Soon after the resumption Chiocci won a penalty against Jennings for not releasing, although the prop was clearly off his feet, and Giteau restored Toulon’s lead. Craig Burden broke Toner’s tackle and the defensive line to carry hard toward the posts from 40 metres out, and despite brave defending on their line, eventually they had to give and Chiocci ploughed as much under as through the two Leinster locks to score. Giteau converted and it already felt like game over.
Despite another Gopperth penalty, after another big carry by Ruddock, and one good strike move which brought Zane Kirchner off his wing and around the four-up defence, worse followed for Leinster when Toner provided scrappy line-out ball for Reddan and the increasingly influential Steffon Armitage hacked upfield to lead a footrush.
The ball bounced kindly for Maxime Mermoz, who found Florian Fresia in support as Leinster scrambled, and after another charge by Bastareaud – this time through D’Arcy – Drew Mitchell came around his wing to beat D’Arcy again and round the posts.
Cue the local Var Matin newspaper, one stationed at each seat, being thrown into the air, and there soon followed a rendition of La Marseillaise , and then a mammoth penalty by Delon Armitage. The Leinster bench made something of an impact, helping to maul in a try off a lineout take by Leo Cullen, but unfortunately Ian Madigan missed another penalty to the corner, which could conceivably and miraculously perhaps have made it a one-score game.
But another Giteau penalty brought a truer reflection to the final outcome.