Simply the best
Published 02/05/2011 | 05:00
When you have been following Irish rugby consistently for 30 years, the last 10 in a professional capacity, you think you have seen it all.
Like being with an irritating girlfriend in the DVD rental shop, the prospects of a fresh, exciting experience are reduced by the level of over-exposure -- "This one looks good?" "Seen it." "What about this one?" "Seen that, too."
There have been matches to thrill the soul over the years: the win in Cardiff in 1985; giving the Wallabies an almighty rattle in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final; Warren Gatland's near-miss debut as Irish coach in Paris in 1998; Munster v Saracens in 2000; and, of course, the Grand Slam clincher two years ago.
However, in terms of drama, physical intensity and sheer quality of rugby, Leinster-Toulouse 2011 sits on top of the pile.
This was pure theatre, usurping Wasps-Munster 2004 as the finest Heineken Cup match in the competition's 16-year history.
The second half, in particular, saw even the most seasoned, cynical observers struggle to catch their breath or keep their buttocks grounded successfully.
There was a two-minute period around the 50-minute mark when the contest played out like the script of a Rocky film, as the two sides went at each other with reckless abandon, punching deep into opposition territory with flurried combination attacks before retreating frantically as their opponents countered.
Of course, there were mistakes -- in a battle of this magnitude and intensity there always will be -- but the handful of dropped balls, missed line-outs and defensive lapses were subsumed by the sheer quality of entertainment, comprising shuddering collisions, sweeping offensive plays and try-saving tackles.
That Leinster managed to emerge battered but victorious is a testament to their self-belief, skill-levels and superb application, because Toulouse would have comfortably beaten any other side in Europe with this showing and, though the southern hemisphere may scoff at the notion, most of the Super 15 sides to boot.
Guy Noves' side arrived in Dublin as underdogs but were never about to give up their title easily.
They rocked Leinster with an early blitz, repeated the trick after half-time and when replacement Nicolas Bezy's mammoth penalty brought them back to six points with four minutes remaining, the prospect of end-game agony for Leinster loomed large.
But the home side were having none of it. We said going into the match that defence and home advantage were the critical arguments in favour of Joe Schmidt's side making the final, and so it proved.
Toulouse's first try was a freak occurrence, David Skrela's penalty kick cannoning off the post and bouncing, as if by magnetic pull, perfectly into the arms of Florian Fritz, who could justifiably have pinched himself before touching down.
Their second came from a five-metre scrum which should have been a 22 drop-out to Leinster after Gordon D'Arcy (on top form) did superbly to scramble back and prevent a Toulouse score in the right-hand corner.
From the scrum, Sean O'Brien was clearly held back by Yannick Nyanga, allowing Louis Picamoles to trot over for the try without having to negotiate the Tullow man's considerable presence.
Nyanga received a meaty box for his troubles (a fair reward for an act of blatant gamesmanship), and it is hoped common sense will prevail when reviewing this incident and O'Brien will be present to make a final contribution to his remarkable season in Cardiff.
But when Toulouse came hunting in the last 10 minutes, Leinster's discipline and defensive organisation were impeccable, with Jamie Heaslip rounding off his best performance of 2011 with a crucial turnover.
Then there was the crowd. Glib service is often paid to the contribution of the '16th man' but they had a vital role to play on this occasion.
Lansdowne Road was a remarkable ocean of blue flags and jerseys on Saturday, swamping the ripples of red and lifting the spirits of the Leinster players when most needed -- such as in the build-up to Leinster's first try from Heaslip, their frenzied exhortations seemingly willing the Kildare man's arm through a forest of legs to ground the ball right on the line.
That try was converted, inevitably, by Jonathan Sexton, who slotted eight from eight in a display of easy authority that bodes well for contests to come.
All the Leinster players delivered. Encouragingly, Luke Fitzgerald came off his wing to contribute productively as an auxiliary ball-carrier, Isa Nacewa was as cool as ever at full-back (pulling off a match-saving tackle on Gregory Lamboley) and Shane Horgan produced some kick-off leaps and fields that would have done justice to Michael Jordan or Teddy McCarthy in their heydays.
The scrum was put under enormous pressure but produced secure ball when it counted and when Heinke van der Merwe came on as a blood sub in the second half for Cian Healy (who had just produced a wonderful surge that Schmidt cited as a major turning point), his performance in loose and tight was so good that he was left on.
Isaac Boss was also immense off the bench and is pushing hard for the World Cup.
Eoin Reddan, who seemed to be having contact lens problems early on, had a couple of loose passes and kicks but was forced to cope with thunderous Toulouse pressure at the ruck and when Leinster got their phases going, it was the scrum-half who directed operations expertly to bring them into the game after their shaky start.
Brian O'Driscoll, predictably, played a leading role. He prevented a first-half try, earning a dubious yellow card in the process -- it was not clear that his intentions were to kill the ball rather than gather -- and scored the crucial one for Leinster on his second-half return following wonderful work from Sexton.
As for Schmidt, his stock continues its inexorable rise.
Ideally, these teams would have met in the final and, based on their performances this season, it is hard to see Leinster failing to capture their second title in Cardiff in a few weeks' time, as Schmidt will not allow complacency to be a factor.
"We'll be pretty self-critical because we started slowly but the character that we showed to give Toulouse a head start and then get back into the game I thought was fantastic," said Schmidt.
"The players worked incredibly hard. You do need a little bit of luck but there wasn't too much luck in that performance -- I think we put our heart and soul into the physical effort.
"The last one is always the most satisfying, but that one more than most. It's so tough to get there (the final) that you don't want to waste the opportunity."
Noves was understandably gutted but felt privileged to have played his part in such a memorable contest.
"The two teams gave their all, even to the point of exhaustion," said the Toulouse coach.
"I am extremely proud of my players. Leinster knew how to beat us but I know the sun will still shine tomorrow."
In years to come, the likes of O'Driscoll, Horgan, D'Arcy and the inspirational Leo Cullen will look back on this match as one of the highlights of their careers, and so they should.
This is one DVD that will be worth repeated viewings.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden 56-69); J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 53); C Healy (H van der Merwe 53), R Strauss, M Ross (S Wright 73); L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin (S Jennings 53), J Heaslip, S O'Brien.
TOULOUSE -- C Heymans; V Clerc, F Fritz (Y Jauzion 60), C Poitrenaud, M Médard; D Skrela (N Bezy 67), JM Doussain; JB Poux (D Human 45), W Servat (V Lacombe 77), C Johnston (J Falefa 67); Y Maestri (G Lamboley 60), P Albacete; J Bouilhou (capt), L Picamoles (S Sowerby 64), Y Nyanga (T Dusautoir 45).
REF -- D Pearson (England).