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Third time unlucky for Leinster as Toulouse win European Champions Cup

There are plenty of decent teams out there but, at club level, the force is unquestionably with Toulouse. By winning a dramatic sixth Champions Cup title they have propelled themselves another giant step beyond their biggest European rivals and remain a formidable side in anybody’s language.

Club rugby occasions do not come bigger or more tense and nothing was remotely guaranteed with the scores tied at 15-15 at the end of normal time and the atmosphere increasingly gladiatorial. Cometh the hour, cometh les hommes. Three minutes into the first period of extra time, with James Lowe in the sin-bin, the French giants stretched Leinster’s depleted defence wide on the left and Matthis Lebel scorched over for the game-breaking try.

Despite having the lock Richie Arnold sent off for a dangerous clear-out on Cian Healy, a 14-man Toulouse subsequently kicked on, the accurate right boot of Thomas Ramos providing four vital penalties to secure a fourth successive French victory in four years. This was the third Champions Cup final to go to extra time and Toulouse, remarkably, have won all of them.

It was a brutal way for Leinster to lose a third consecutive final, particularly given how hard they had battled throughout the regular 80 minutes. Ultimately, though, they did not have tactical architects of the calibre of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and their Jacques Nienaber-inspired defensive excellence was not quite matched by their attacking ‘red zone’ ruthlessness.

What an epic contest this was, regardless of the ultimate outcome. If the award of seven penalties against Leinster at the breakdown in the first half hinted at an unsatisfactory stop-start affair it was nothing of the sort. There have been less thunderous Test matches and, once the dust finally settles, it will be remembered among the most absorbing finales this tournament has seen.

To cast it as a battle between Leinster’s defensive excellence and Toulouse’s offloading majesty would be an over-simplification but both elements were very much on show. Dupont’s brilliance was also evident from first to last and he was crowned man of the match and the tournament’s player of the year. At this rate the Paris Olympics, where he will be playing sevens for France this summer, could become a one-man show.

Leinster, for their parts, will regret turning down a number of kickable penalties that, in a tight game, might have made a significant difference. Then again, Toulouse had the look of a team who would have found a way regardless, with the unstinting work of England’s Jack Willis another key factor.

Where to start. Two penalties from the excellent Blair Kinghorn gave the French side an early 6-0 lead and Leinster, despite one prolonged period of territorial pressure, ultimately came away with only a Ross Byrne penalty to show for it.

Byrne was always going to be a prominent figure, purely by dint of the fact he is wearing Johnny Sexton’s old jersey. He can look a little upright and mechanical by comparison and, at this level, nothing less than masterful tends to be good enough. It was a welcome relief for all Leinster fans, then, when he put Robbie Henshaw away for a scything midfield break to show why Leinster’s coaches have kept faith in him.

Matthis Lebel scores a crucial try for Toulouse at the start of extra time.View image in fullscreen

On these kind of intense days, though, even the best can make the occasional misjudgment. A fractional knock-on from Dupont briefly interrupted his side’s rhythm before a momentary lapse of defensive concentration allowed Dan Sheehan to race from inside his own half to within five metres of the Toulouse line. Leinster collapsed the ensuing maul to concede a penalty the other way and allow their opponents off the hook.

It was all becoming a touch helter-skelter until Dupont drilled a 50-22 to establish the position from which his pack won a scrum penalty and Kinghorn slotted another vital three points. Had the full-back not missed a fourth penalty a minute before the interval, Toulouse really would have marched confidently in at half-time.

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Instead, it was Leinster who struck back just before the break, Byrne kicking his second penalty after a flurry of action during which James Lowe momentarily thought he had scored in the left corner only to discover the referee, Matthew Carley, had already blown his whistle.

The absorbing game of muscular cat and alert mouse continued in the second half, Byrne levelling the scores at 9-9 after 47 minutes and Nienaber’s fight-for-everything Springbok mentality evident in its new blue form.

At 12-12, though, who would blink first? For a split second it seemed a leaping Lebel had scored a brilliant try but replays showed Jordan Larmour had intervened in the nick of time. After Ramos and Frawley had swapped further penalties, however, the latter narrowly missed a chance to settle things with a late drop goal attempt.

Extra time simply added to the excruciating tension. True, this tournament has its imperfections, structurally and logistically. But sitting beneath Tottenham Hotspur’s striking golden cockerel, watching some of the world’s best players chasing an egg-shaped ball it is equally true that big-time rugby can refresh parts not every other sport can reach.

Where else, for example, would you come across supporters en route to the ground clad in an unusual combo of Toulouse replica jerseys and kilts. It turned out they had attended the previous dozen finals, dressed in contrasting national dress each time. “It’s what sport’s all about,” said my new Scottish friend, loving every second of his annual day out.

On and off the field this year’s final will live long in the memory.

Source: theguardian.com