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Thunderous final proves we are living in a golden age of club rugby | Michael Aylwin
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Thunderous final proves we are living in a golden age of club rugby | Michael Aylwin

For the third time in nigh on 30 years, a European final goes to extra-time. For a third time in four years a final features a red card. For the third time in a row Leinster lose in the final. And, for the sixth time, Toulouse win.

There was a feeling before this match that we might be witnessing two of the great club sides of modern times. That feeling was no less palpable by the end of another breathtaking event to decorate this remarkable era of exhilarating rugby.

Antoine Dupont, widely touted as the best player in the world, some claiming the best in history, won player of the match and player of the season, official gongs to make more compelling his case for that unofficial title. His contest with Jamison Gibson-Park was billed as one between the world’s best scrum-halfs. Dupont shaded it, but more for his less heralded attributes in defence.

A red card for Richie Arnold after a clear-out on Cian Healy made the second half of extra-time a little harder than it already was for Toulouse, but a yellow shown to James Lowe a few minutes earlier for a deliberate knock-on, in the second minute of extra-time, is what finally served to blow open the game. Matthis Lebel streaked down an unattended wing for a beauty of a try, fit for the occasion.

Leinster would reply with a more nuggety effort by Josh van der Flier, shortly after Arnold’s red card, but by then their discipline was deserting them. The penalties of Thomas Ramos, who started on the bench, kept Toulouse, finally, beyond the reach of grasping Leinster hands.

Thomas Ramos celebrates Toulouse’s victoryView image in fullscreen

Tries? Who needs them? In this era of the try-fest, how refreshing to be reminded that rugby can thrill without them. For 80 minutes, no player could find his way to the hallowed tryline. Good. Such an event is supposed to be hard to come by, and, boy, these teams know how to make it hard.

In only the second minute, we were treated to a vignette that hinted at the pyrotechnics to come – and it featured those two No 9s. Toulouse opened with a display of bewitching power and deftness, Emmanuel Meafou in particular showing off those contrasting qualities. He combined with Juan Cruz Mallía down the right, and soon Dupont was on the ball in the corner. His outrageous offload seemed to have put Mallía over for what would have been a stunning try, but Gibson-Park had made it across to thwart his arch-rival’s claim to the early plaudits. His tackle managed – just – to force Dupont’s toe into touch.

The tone was set. This fabulous stadium was packed, a gleaming temple to the 21st century seething like a coliseum. Which inspired which, the febrility of the crowd or the physicality of the players? Both were intense to international standards.

Leinster it was who came closest to scoring the game’s first try after that early exchange. Dan Sheehan, as much the embodiment as anyone of a sport of such remarkable specimens, ripped the ball (from Dupont, no less), stepped inside Romain Ntamack and, then as if that were not enough for a front-row forward, proceeded to gallop 50 yards towards the tryline. Blair Kinghorn managed to run him down, rangy full-back against barrelling hooker, these days a far fairer contest in the wide open spaces than it ever used to be.

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Toulouse supporters celebrate in a fan zone back home at the Place du CapitoleView image in fullscreen

If the maestros at No 9 are contesting best in the world in their position, Kinghorn is quietly moving up the rankings of the world’s premier full-backs. Having relieved Ramos, France’s full-back, of the Toulouse No 15 shirt, Kinghorn has taken over his goal-kicking duties too. His penalties in the first half kept Toulouse ahead, despite their predominantly defensive remit. Dupont was as remarkable on the other side of the ball as he is when, as is normal, he bewitches the best in the world with the ball in his hands.

Jack Willis, the Englishman thriving in the south of France, kept him company in the defensive masterclass, while Caelan Doris led Leinster with an extraordinary display of lusty ball-carrying. But this is a different level of club rugby, and Leinster’s finger-tip, multi-phase game could make no progress, the ball too often finding the turf in the face of Toulouse’s ferocious breakdown work.

Toulouse still had the clearest-cut opportunities, for all the defending they had to work through. Lebel thought he had scored in the second half, leaping spectacularly into the corner. But Jordan Larmour’s tackle, much like Gibson-Park’s in the first half, had his opposite number’s foot grazing the line.

These were the margins. Finger tips, toenails, handfuls of points. Until Toulouse, with the thunder of Tottenham rolling all around, pulled clear, long after normal matches have been put to bed. We are blessed to be witnessing these times.

Source: theguardian.com