Saturday 1 October 2016

Toulon 25 Leinster 20: A defeat that will linger long in the memory

Blues pay price for failure to land knock-out blow when they had champions on the ropes

Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip shows his disappointment at the final whistle of yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille
Jamie Heaslip shows his disappointment at the final whistle of yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and his assistants Les Kiss and Greg Feek look on during the game

This match had been billed as the day Leinster would suffer mutilation by the Med. Instead, it was, or at least it seemed to be for the clutch of Leinster supporters sprinkled throughout the Velodrome, as if they and their team had suffered death by a thousand cuts.

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Ultimately, the final wound cut deepest of all. The irony was that it arrived when Leinster, belatedly, decreed that they should begin doing towards the 100th minute what they should have been doing from the first.

Against a club whose fortunes are driven by a comic book billionaire publisher, Ian Madigan's dramatic, desperate wide pass will see him cast by many as a cartoon villain.

In truth, his was one of a multitude of sins committed by both sides on a day when, if one quested any beauty in this sport, it was only of the brutal kind.

Exhorted

All week, Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip had exhorted his side to dig deeper than they had ever done before in an effort to extract a confidence in each other that they had seemed to forfeit for long stretches this season.

A gory outcome was the end product of Madigan's quest for glory. But at least he had made a decision, however fateful and fatal it may have seemed to those in the bleachers or on the bar stools.

"It's not down to one player," said Heaslip. "It's down to the group, the collective. At different times, all players made mistakes in the game, on both sides. So it can't be down to one moment."

This was an interminable slugfest between lumbering prize-fighters with little else to rely on but brawn in the absence of brain; Madigan's quaint attempt to invest the occasion with subtlety was perhaps always doomed to fail.

"It felt like a boxing match," Heaslip concurred, "a slugfest, punishing each other for making mistakes, especially when one of us got near the line. It showed there was nothing between the sides. They're such a good side and they can punish you."

And how, ultimately, Toulon punished Leinster.

The horror and pain of this defeat will be encapsulated in Bryan Habana's gleeful dive; the corrosive effects of Leinster's inability to capitalise on a stunningly below-par performance from the champions will linger longer in the memory.

"We left opportunities out there in the first 40," the captain admitted, alighting on the real story behind the headlines. "We had position and momentum to get more return than we did."

Ultimately, they weren't good enough to do it; and their renewed sense of faith and belief in themselves, and each other, had arrived too late in the season to make the difference it needed to.

This was a much better performance than delivered last season against the champions but it was also a much poorer Toulon display; that they couldn't make up the difference will cause sleepless nights.

Madigan, too, may toss and turn as he re-lives what may have been the first intercept thrown in his professional career. A missed penalty will also blot his copybook; then again, despite his 20 points, even the great Leigh Halfpenny lost his radar at times, as if empathetic with the general sense of ineptitude prevailing amongst so many world-class players.

But then Toulon have so many and just one was required to make the difference. "People ask why we have stars," gloats Toulon's owner Mourad Boudellaj. "It's because stars get you to the final."

But the key to Habana's try was the pressure piled upon Madigan by Rudi Wulf's claustrophobic defence, pushing up into the Leinster man's face as he pondered what to do with the pill.

Of the thousands of decisions all day, Madigan's response to the oppressive, ominous presence of the Wulf would gobble his team whole.

"You sort of hope things might happen like that in a game," said the great Habana. "Everyone said the intercept was awesome but when you have a guy like Rudi inside me, it forces a decision.

"'Do I float that ball over? Do I keep the ball?' And when he decides to float it over, I'm in the right side at the right time."

There were 36,000 seconds in this game; just one of them decided. the outcome

"Every minute, every second of the game, you had to concentrate or it might cost you," averred Halfpenny.

"It all comes down to decision-making," expanded Habana. "If that pass is not floated. If Rudi doesn't push up. Execution wins you trophies. I've been lucky, sometimes I've mis-read it and found myself under my own posts."

Matt O'Connor declared it a 14-point swing; the 4-2 overlap may have demanded a recycle, especially with Toulon down a man. Leigh Halfpenny had already put his side effectively 3-0 ahead with a penalty while Ali Williams was off.

Williams greeted us clutching a can of the sponsor's product; any more drinks last night would certainly have been on him.

"Bloody, eh!" he chirped, proffering Kiwi slang for 'Of course'. "No better way to put it, mate. Having to stand there avoiding the president, not wanting to look at him. But then he goes and does what Bryan Habana does. That's what makes great teams isn't it?"

Perhaps some levity is required on a day of such extraordinary tension and extreme emotion.

Cheekily

"It's almost a turning point," he suggested cheekily; his side won the sin-bin 10-0, a trend that is supposed to be reversed in instances such as this.

"I go off and everyone says let's start to get into it. We got a penalty, Bryan gets his try. I'll claim a lot of credit for that, it was a very tactical move.

"Mate, I thought I'd ruined it for the whole team basically. What can I say? I've probably got a text now from Wayne Barnes saying 'sorry' I reckon."

Toulon's owner had been preparing a script to accept gracious - a foreign tongue for him - defeat.

Instead, Leinster had to pen their own obituary.

"We always have an inner belief, an inner confidence, that if you do your job and have confidence in mates that they can do their job, we can stress teams and get points," Heaslip signed off.

"We showed that today, and that is something special.

"We knew we had to produce some of our best rugby and do all the people who followed us proud. Hopefully we did that in our effort and our actions."

His was a truth but one that couldn't mask the grim reality of defeat.

Losing by a knockout blow is a bitter pill to swallow when you've had the champion on the ropes for so long.

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