Leinster reach Champions Cup decider with equal measures of grace and grunt

Cullen has never got it so right as first half where they were unplayable

A wall of shadow from the West Stand cutting the Aviva turf down the middle end-to-end and Toulouse could have convinced themselves they were playing in the French southwest.

Before the match began a straw poll among the short-sleeved coffee and beer drinkers had, after the previous weekend of Leicester and Munster, drawn the match as one of an undercooked Leinster against an overcooked Toulouse.

Those choices might have been half right and had some bearing as Leo Cullen has always had player's names tumbling in the air ready to fall into position according to his algorithm of exhaustion, form, freshness and injury.

But the conclusion after Toulouse was far from the speculation and that Cullen has never got it so right following a first half in which Leinster were virtually unplayable. His team was oven ready.


The scene froze. A group of emptied Toulouse players with their hands on their knees, Meafou shaking his head and on the wing and winger Juan Cruz Mallia lay flat on his back

Even Jamison Gibson-Park’s blocked grubber on seven minutes for Antoine Dupont’s bolt almost the length of the pitch for the first Toulouse try against the run of play and Leinster didn’t break stride.

That strike and the latent threat of the European Champions might have rattled other teams. But in the context of the Leinster reaction it triggered, Dupont’s effrontery was reduced to a cameo piece of little consequence.

The sense was Leinster were in ripping mode, their mood of menace and threat not lost on the solid bank of blue in the East Stand that wrapped behind both goals with barely a seam of Toulouse red.

With Sexton sending in James Lowe and Josh van der Flier for first-half tries, the home side might have questioned why at 23-10 up at half-time they were just 13 points ahead as, Dupont aside, Toulouse had not played in the Leinster half for most of the first period.

But second guessing was not in the narrative and within 10 minutes of the second half Leinster were pouring down the pitch again, sucking Toulouse players under the posts for Lowe to again stroll over wide left.

There was a point in the second half when the Leinster left wing drilled a low kick straight up the line. Toulouse scrambled to cover, won the ball and passed to Emmanuel Meafou, who fumbled forward inside his 22.

The scene froze. A group of emptied Toulouse players with their hands on their knees, Meafou shaking his head and on the wing and winger Juan Cruz Mallia lay flat on his back being treated for cramp. Their match summed up.

Afterwards, the mien of Johnny Sexton, orchestrator of tempo, position and play, was considered and grateful for the team performance. Occasionally he lightened the room but as ever his mind even in celebration mode never strayed away from the main target.

“We’ve got to a final now but that’s not where we ever set our aspirations,” he said.

More comfortable, he turned to praise his players from Robbie Henshaw rising from his sick bed to Lowe's endless enthusiasm for the game and Gibson-Park's floating presence around the pitch whipping Leinster into fast and slow rhythms.

Cullen, too, was comfortable staying in the present. He drew on his last experience of playing in the final destination of Marseille in a match almost a decade ago.

“We were down there in a semi-final. We don’t have many players who are still around that day,” said Cullen. “Jonathan wasn’t ever there. He was away at the time,” he added casting a mischievous glance at his captain. Sexton had the grace for a wry smile about his two-year stint from 2013 with Racing.

“But there’s parts of that day and weekend that still live strong in my memory for lots of the wrong reasons.

"In Europe we've got a good record but the days when you don't turn up in the finals, they hurt you and live with you, probably more than the victories so you try and get that experience into the group and explain that you need to take the occasion out of it and just really go out and try and play your best.

“You look back at all of the finals you’ve been a part of, there’s so much learning, and a lot of PRO14, URC finals – the competition’s changed its name so many times I don’t know what it’s called. We’ve been in loads of them. We’ve won loads and we’ve lost loads.”

By the end of the match Hugo Keenan, hit twice on the head and chest from close range passes, finally had his moment. It wasn't quite a gallop in between defenders. It didn't need to be. He sauntered through two flat-footed red shirts and fell over the line for 40-17.

“It will be incredibly special if we can match Toulouse and put five stars on the jersey,” said Sexton. “Hopefully we don’t have any more lessons to learn.”

Sometimes it is like a horse in the Grand National and what club gets the distance over a long season that began in September and will finish in two weeks at the end of May. Leinster have so far managed that with equal measures of grace and grunt.

The match ended with the announcer wailing “ladies and gentlemen we are going to Marseille.” By then the shadow was just kissing the East Stand and the players already knew.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times