Toulon see off Leinster challenge to set up all-French final
Intercept try from Bryan Habana in extra time gives Toulon daylight in Marseille
Toulon winger Bryan Habana dives over to score a try in the first half of extra time in the Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Toulon 25 Leinster 20
An increasingly nerve-jangling, tryless epic for 80 minutes, burst into even more dramatic life in 20 minutes of extra-time. This wonderful tournament has delivered again almost despite itself, and so too did Leinster with a wonderfully dogged 100-minute effort.
Regrets, they’ll have plenty, and ironically not the least of these was when taking a risk in attempting to press home a one-man advantage after Ali Williams was sin-binned in extra-time. Alas, Ian Madigan’s skip pass was picked off by the intercept king Bryan Habana.
To Leinster’s eternal credit, they responded with their best spell of running rugby in the match in the second period of extra-time for the pack to engineer a try off a lineout maul. Unfortunately, they couldn’t muster another shot, Jimmy Gopperth’s conversion against the upright adding to a missed penalty against the post by Madigan in the second half while Gopperth and Rob Kearney both missed drop goal attempts in a frantic spell at the end of normal time.
Leigh Halfpenny, on the other hand, landed seven from eight.
Toulon were wildly erratic, seemingly expecting to roll Leinster over, and only regained some shape when Freddy Michalak was removed and Matt Giteau switched to outhalf. They had the majority of the game but were indebted to Habana’s opportunism.
Discipline could have cost Toulon hugely, and particularly their array of secondrow hardmen. Bakkies Botha was pinged four times, his replacement Jocelino Suta twice and Williams was yellow carded in extra-time.
Isaac Boss was strong in often difficult circumstances around the fringes but Gopperth had an unsteady game at outhalf, not always kicking the ball well. Madigan landed his kicks but was erratic in general play, and Ben Te’o had little ball. The back three worked hard, with Rob Kearney excellent in the air and Luke Fitzgerald very comfortable, albeit off scraps.
The rain teemed down from over an hour before kick-off, making the short-cropped soccer pitch at the redeveloped Stade Vélodrome very slippery and ensuring some keystone cops-like exchanges as the pill soon resembled the proverbial bar of soap.
With Wayne Barnes so hot on tackled players not releasing the ball, it made building through the phases well nigh impossible and made it doubly risky to run the ball, particularly in your own half. And so both teams repeatedly took to the air. But Barnes, it has to be said, was clear, consistent, generally sharp and fair.
The pre-match build-up featured the national anthem of Provence, La Coupo Santo, and of course the Toulon war chant, the Pilou Pilou, whereupon Leinster made an awful start. Gopperth’s kick-off drifted over the dead-ball line and Sebastien Tillous-Borde moved the ball away from a dominant scrum for Giteau to kick straight to Kearney.
Even then, Toulon gained yardage all too easily from one-off runners and with Barnes playing an advantage against Madigan for not releasing, after missing a Botha knock-on on the floor, Michalak’s up-and-under into the in-goal area was miss-fielded by Fergus McFadden before Chris Masoe pounced, perhaps after Kearney had just touched down.
But Barnes went back to the TMO to discover Masoe was in front of the kicker, and compensation for Toulon came by way of the ensuing Halfpenny penalty, which Madigan soon cancelled out after Botha was about 20 metres offside when playing the ball from a Giteau kick.
It was bordering on a professional foul and despite another strong scrum, successive breakdown penalties- the first won by Seán O’Brien, the second conceded by Masoe - enabled Madigan to put Leinster in front.
Out of nothing, the Leinster scrum marched forward - prompting their pockets of fans behind their goal to wave their blue flags and chant “allez les bleus” - and when Williams tugged an airborne Jordi Murphy at the resultant lineout Madigan made it 9-3. After a forward pass by Michalak, added to a fumble by Masoe off a previous one, Cian Healy - long since embroiled in a war of sledging with Botha - ill-advisedly charged into Botha at the side of a ruck and Halfpenny made it 9-6.
With a couple of steals at the rickety Toulon lineout Leinster saw out the half ahead.
After another lineout steal, and even more amazingly a scrum steal coupled with a Michalak fumble, Halfpenny missed a penalty. Bernard Laporte had seen enough and replaced Michalak but Giteau immediately spilled a grubber by McFadden and Gopperth almost scored off his own charge down of a Giteau kick.
After Halfpenny drew the sides level with a scrum penalty, Williams came through a maul illegally, but to a cacophony of boos Madigan’s penalty hit the outside of the post. It seemed even more pivotal when Madigan’s punt was charged down by Guilhem Guirado. Although Healy won a relieving turnover with his last act, Murphy was pinged for not releasing and Halfpenny nudged Toulon in front, as the mouthy Habana demanded a yellow card.
Te’o made his first big carry as Leinster kept the ball in hand and Juan Fernandez Lobbe was pinged for Madigan to bisect the posts superbly from almost 50 metres. They then ran hard and recycled to work a drop goal chance for Gopperth, but he was fractionally wide from about 30 metres with two minutes left.
There was still time for Delon Armitage to attempt a howitzer, but the English winger was short from seven metres inside his own half. Cue extra-time.
A big Toulon scrum enabled Halfpenny to land a 42 metre penalty but Barnes spotted Suta ‘choking’ Richardt Strauss at the side of a ruck and Madigan again kept his nerve amid the unsporting din from near the touchline.
Williams clattered into an airborne Devin Toner from the restart and was yellow carded but Masoe won a turnover penalty when Kearney carried into contact and Halfpenny landed the 45 metre penalty.
Worse followed off a superb O’Brien steal, when Habana picked off Madigan’s pass attempted a long skip pass and Halfpenny’s conversion made it 25-15.
The Toulon thousands launched into the Marseillaise, but Leinster’s response was immense as they carried hard through the phases and generated their highest tempo of the match, bringing Fitzgerald into the line, and then went to the corner to march over the line. O’Brien emerged with the ball for the try but Gopperth’s conversion hit the post.
It left Leinster 25-20 and needing another try to win the match, even 25-all would have done it as they would then have scored two tries to one. But they couldn’t get within striking distance, and Toulon saw it out in Leinster territory. It’s to Leinster’s credit that they were mightily relieved.
Scoring sequence: 6 mins Halfpenny pen 3-0; 9 mins Madigan pen 3-3; 13 mins Madigan pen 3-6; 21 mins Madigan pen 3-9; 30 mins Halfpenny pen 6-9; (half-time 6-9); 57 mins Halfpenny pen 9-9; 68 mins Halfpennuy pen 12-9; 71 mins Madigan pen 12-12; (full-time 12-12) 83 mins Halfpenny pen 15-12; 86 mins Madigan pen 15-15; 90 mins Halfpenny pen 18-15; 90 (+1 min) Habana try, Halfpenny con 25-15; 95 mins O’Brien try 25-20.
RC TOULON: Leigh Halfpenny; Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana; Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Xavier Chiocci, Guilhem Guirado, Carl Hayman (capt); Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams; Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe.
Replacements: Steffon Armitage for Smith (35 mins), Rudi Wulf for Michalak (47 mins), Alexandre Menini for Chiocci (50 mins), Jocelino Suta for Botha (60 mins), Jean-Charles Orioli for Guirado (66 mins), Levan Chilachava for Hayman (73 mins), Drew Mitchell for Habana (91 mins), Michael Claassens,
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Ben Te’o, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy; Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: Martin Moore for Ross (57 mins), Zane Kirchner for McFadden (60 mins), Richardt Strauss for Cronin, Jack McGrath for Healy, Eoin Reddan for Boss (all 66 mins), Ben Marshall for McCarthy (90 mins), Gordon D’Arcy for Madigan, Dominic Ryan for Murphy (both 91 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).