Leinster 16 Toulon 20
The other week Leinster had a bad time. Thrashed about on the French Riviera, a mere six days later they morphed into enforcers.
Pity they were unable to sustain it. The tide had turned blood red by 64 minutes when Anthony Etrillard – one of Toulon's heavy cavalry in off the bench – was powered over to make it 17-16 to the European champions.
By then Leinster were mired in their own 22. A shame considering how well they had started, when they were so brutally effective.
Mike McCarthy cracked open big Romain Taofifenua's ribs (still only took the monstrous French lock seven minutes to sufficiently recover and return). Devin Toner put Ma'a Nonu into the turf (the marvellous one didn't flinch) and Jamie Heaslip jarred the ball from Matt Giteau's grasp. Josh van der Flier was everywhere. He must stay when Seanie O'Brien returns.
The famed Toulon backrow of Juan Smith, Steffon Armitage and Duane Vermeulen were met and matched behind the gainline. Armitage wasn't allowed squeeze himself between ball and turf.
This was a performance bursting with pride but in rugby power wins every time.
There can be some hope in this performance. With Taofifenua in a bundle of pain in Leinster's 22, play swept close to the visitors try line. Points rarely come easy from the kings of Europe. It took five long minutes and a load of scrums before Wayne Barnes ran under the Toulon posts. The penalty try robbed van der Flier of his first European touch down after motoring the driving maul.
Johnny Sexton converted and with an early penalty banked Leinster were 10 points away with 18 minutes played. And a lovely evening for it too. Balmy December in Dublin.
What we also learned was no Mike Ross, no Leinster or Ireland scrum. He was gone on 24 minutes with a signfiicant hamstring tear.
Toulon struck next. It came from Barnes penalising Rob Kearney at a ruck where van der Flier was again excellent. A few phases later Isa Nacewa was a finger-tip off intercepting Guilhem Guirado's pass to Smith. Eric Escande fluffed the extras.
On went Leinster. Rhys Ruddock, having a stormer under the eyes of the Ireland coaches, burst down field. The try was botched when a bad left-handed Luke Fitzgerald pass was knocked on by Rob Kearney but Barnes went back for Guirado's no arms tackle on Jack McGrath. No sin bin though.
Sexton made it 13-5.
The 39th minute was as hectic as any sport can get. It ended with Sexton sticking over another three points but not before the loss of Ben Te’o to concussion. The For-Sale centre banged the back of his ceann when trying to untangle several Toulon players who were interfering with Sexton’s face and neck.
Leinster kept going with Fitzgerald gliding inside Nonu before an easy penalty came when Delon Armitage petulantly put a shoulder into Eoin Reddan.
Te’o will always be a loss but at least the Ian Madigan-Fitzgerald centre partnership got another airing.
Bernard Laporte had enough of scrumhalf Escande's miscuing boot and mixed it up early in the second half with Tom Taylor taking the tee. But the hits kept coming.
An amazing flip by Nacewa on Vermeulen yielded a Leinster scrum, which in theory had been strengthened by the arrival of Cian Healy and Sean Cronin.
Scrums aplenty and Leinster seemed happy with that. That changed.
Of course we know Toulon never bend. Not that they were themselves this night. Drew Mitchell blew a certain try when dropping Taylor's pass on 54 minutes but the scrum wars turned in Toulon's favour and the Wallaby winger appeared to atone for his earlier blunder with a try in the corner. Not so. All hail Sean Cronin. A fine tackle put Mitchell into touch.
Then Cronin messed up the resulting lineout fling. That ensured a relentless assault on the try line with Barnes eventually running under the posts after two crushing scrums.
Next Etrillard was powered over thanks to the twisting direction of Juan Fernandez Lobbe (what a sub to have). Mamuka Gorgodze also came in just as Sexton was forced ashore with a quad injury.
The bonus point fourth try now seemed a certainty, a formality even.
Strangely it never came. Taylor’s long range penalty did provide some breathing space as the masters of winning denied Leinster’s late, and ultimately inaccurate, charge.
The pick of the sloppiness was Zane Kirchner’s no look pass slipping through Nacewa’s hands and into touch.
Then Jordi Murphy was sin-binned as Gorgodze stretched over to send the crowd pouring down Lansdowne road, quickly forgetting rugby as the bright lights beckoned. But no try! The Georgian beast had fumbled the pill before his dive.
A snatch and run perhaps? Nope. Healy knocked on to ensure the drabest ending imaginable.
An encouraging start but after this perhaps it’s time for the harder stuff.
Scoring sequence – 10 mins: J Sexton pen, 3-0; 17 mins: Pen try, 8-0;
J Sexton con, 10-0; 27 mins: J Smith try, 10-5; 33 mins: J Sexton pen,
13-5; 39 mins: J Sexton pen, 16-5. Half-time. 58 mins: Pen try, 16-10;
T Taylor con, 16-12; 64 mins: A Etrillard try, 16-17; 73 mins: T
Taylor pen, 16-20.
Leinster: R Kearney; D Kearney, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa; J
Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; R
Ruddock, J Van der Flier, J Heaslip. Replacements: M Moore for M Ross
(24 mins, inj), I Madigan for B Te’o (38 mins), C Healy for J McGrath,
S Cronin for R Strauss (both 46 mins), T Denton for M McCarthy (56
mins), Z Kirchner for J Sexton (66 mins), J Murphy for J Heaslip (69
mins), N McCarthy E Reddan (76 mins).
Toulon: D Armitage; B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M
Giteau, E Escande; F Fresia, G Guirado, M Stevens; J Suta, R
Taofifenua; J Smith, S Armitage, D Vermeulen. Replacements: K
Mikautadze for R Taofifenua (12-19 mins and 50 mins), T Taylor for D
Armitage, S Tillous-Borde for E Escande (both 46 mins), X Chiocci for
F Fresia, L Chilachava for M Stevens (both 47 mins), A Etrillard for G
Guirado (49 mins), JF Lobbe for J Smith (56 mins); M Gorgodze for J
Suta (66 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).