Matt O'Connor left 'proud but incredibly disappointed'
Toulon 25-20 Leinster
Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30
This was a forgettable match marked by a Leinster performance that will live long in the memory: an error-strewn slug-fest that was horrible to watch but for a compelling back-story which kept the viewer sucked in for almost two hours.
When the final whistle went, no man in blue dropped to his knees or even lifted his hands to his head; instead they stood there motionless. Perhaps they didn't have the energy.
Whatever criticisms one has about this team and their much-maligned coach, no one could accuse them of not trying. The effort was exceptional and it was almost enough, but ultimately the execution let them down.
For all that it was a brave, committed performance, Leinster are out of the Champions Cup and will watch the final from afar for the third time in a row.
As Jamie Heaslip said in the build-up, this is a team that play to win and their pedigree denies them any enjoyment of moral victories.
Their season was on the line in Marseille and the grey skies and relentless rain that greeted them in a city known for its year-round sunshine met their steely determination nicely.
However, they will know that they ultimately let the best team in Europe off the hook. Toulon won't make that many mistakes again all season and, when you're playing an ageing team down to 14 men in extra-time, then you'd want to come away with more than a five-point deficit.
"The over-riding emotion is probably pride. The effort the lads put in across the course of it was fantastic and it's incredibly disappointing to come second," coach Matt O'Connor said after an emotionally draining afternoon.
"We were probably inaccurate at key moments in the second half. I thought we dominated for large periods, put them under pressure and made that tell on the scoreboard. We led for large parts of it and were probably the better side for large parts of it but we came second in extra time and that determined the result."
There was a dramatic finale at the end of the initial 80 minutes when Jimmy Gopperth and Rob Kearney tried and failed with drop-goals to win it, before Delon Armitage's effort from within his own half came up short.
That took the game to extra-time, in which the crucial moments arrived just before half-time.
With Ali Williams harshly sent to the sin-bin, Leinster had the man advantage but instead Toulon scored 10 unanswered points to give themselves an unassailable lead, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing a penalty and Bryan Habana picking off Ian Madigan's skip-pass to race home from half-way. Leinster rallied and the brilliant Sean O'Brien came up with the ball after they'd mauled Toulon over, but they couldn't muster a final assault and came up short.
By the end, the dreadful fare of the initial 80 seemed a long time away but Leinster deserve praise for their dogged defence, dominant scrum and tactics that frustrated the French side for long stretches.
Although Gopperth kicked the kick-off dead and the TMO denied Chris Masoe an early try after a near-calamitous mistake by Fergus McFadden in his own dead-ball area, it was the visiting side who managed to get into a 9-3 lead through the boot of Madigan.
The error count was off the charts and the conditions were only partly to blame.
It was hard on the eyes, but there was a relentless determination about Leinster, driven on by O'Brien, Heaslip, Kearney and Devin Toner and executed by Gopperth.
They kicked a lot of ball, opting not to involve Ben Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald unless they had to.
It was low risk, but they ended with 50pc possession and 47pc territory, coming out on the right side of the penalty count - and normally that's enough to get you over the line.
Toulon, though, are not chasing a three-in-a-row for nothing and the introduction of Steffon Armitage for the injured Juan Smith after 35 minutes helped turn the tide their way.
The erstwhile English international made life difficult for the visitors at the breakdown and Halfpenny scored penalties either side of half-time to level, before nudging his team in front after Madigan had hit the post.
It was tense and taut and hard to watch for all sorts of reasons, but it was also absorbing as the stakes ratcheted up and every play became integral to the result.
A big Te'o carry helped establish field position and Leinster took it through the phases, inviting Toulon to offend and eventually Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe obliged.
Madigan levelled and with 10 minutes to go it was anyone's game, but nobody was able to take it, with Gopperth going closest after some superb lineout work from Toner had helped them into position.
And so, for just the fourth time in European rugby history, the game stretched on for another 20 minutes with the sun now shining and the 35,116 crowd enthralled.
Halfpenny edged his side back in front to the delight of the red and black contingent, but a ridiculous choke-hold by Jocelino Suta on Richardt Strauss handed Madigan the chance to level and he took it.
Then, Williams saw yellow for taking Toner in the air despite having his eyes on the ball and, against 14 men, it was there for Leinster to win.
Instead, the gnarled experienced took over and, when Madigan wound up to release Te'o with men to spare, Habana stepped in to crush Leinster's dreams of a place in the Twickenham final.
It had looked unlikely beforehand and few had given O'Connor's men any hope ahead of their return date with the champions, but they left Marseille knowing that they had missed a golden opportunity.
"The positive is the effort," the Australian concluded. "The commitment that all 23 blokes that were involved put in was second to none.
"There was a lot on the line, a lot of people had written us off but within the camp there was never that.
"We speak a lot about the belief and we would back ourselves to go anywhere and beat anybody with our best lads and we showed that today."
His captain agreed.
"We always have an inner belief, a confidence that if you do your job and have the confidence in your team-mate doing his job that we are a good team and that we can stress teams and create situations to get some points," Heaslip said.
"We showed that today. The group talked quickly afterwards about having that confidence going forward.
"We knew we had to produce some of our best rugby and do all the people that travelled down here, that watched at home and the squad members that weren't here today, do all those people proud and hopefully we did today through our efforts and our actions."
Toulon - L Halfpenny; D Armitage, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (D Mitchell 90); F Michalak (R Wolf 49),S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci (A Menini 52), G Guirado (JC Orioli 68), C Hayman (L Chilachava 75); B Botha (J Suta 60), A Williams; J Smith (S Armitage 35), J Fernandez-Lobbe, C Masoe.
Leinster - R Kearney; F McFadden (Z Kirchner 60), B Te'o, I Madigan (G D'Arcy 90), L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss (E Reddan 64); C Healy (J McGrath 64), S Cronin (R Strauss 64), M Ross (M Moore 58); D Toner, M McCarthy (B Marshall 90), J Murphy (D Ryan 90), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt).
Ref - W Barnes (England)
Leinster player ratings
Rob Kearney 7: One of his team's leaders who barely put a foot wrong on a day of limited opportunity. Leinster didn't make enough of his aerial gains, but needs to find more space on counter.
Fergus McFadden 5: Jittery opening under the high ball almost cost his side dear, but recovered to have a solid game before injuring his arm. A luckless season.
Ben Te’o 6: Rarely got a chance to show what he can do with ball in hand and when he did, bashing Mathieu Bastareaud out of his way with ease, he showed that he’ll be a weapon next year.
Ian Madigan 5: Bryan Habana will haunt the centre's dreams for a long time after his intercept, but Madigan is largely responsible for Leinster reaching this stage. Shouldn't be discouraged.
Luke Fitzgerald 6: Criminally under-used, the winger finally got a chance to show off his arsenal when Leinster were chasing a two-score game in garbage time and it was too late.
Jimmy Gopperth 6: Kicked two restarts dead but was otherwise a calm and measured presence who ran a conservative game-plan well and moved Toulon around the park.
Isaac Boss 5: Hampered by unclean ruck ball at regular intervals, he sometimes took on too much himself and his passing and box-kicks were a little loose.
Cian Healy 7: Enjoyed a running battle with Bakkies Botha through the first half but rarely got to use his abrasive ball-carrying. More than held his own against Carl Hayman at scrum-time.
Sean Cronin 7: One of the players of Leinster’s campaign, the hooker was an abrasive presence with ball in hand, but the lineouts were a little loose at crucial moments.
Mike Ross 8: Can stand proud after destroying Xavier Chiocci at the scrum and contributing some big moments in the loose. After being left out in January, more than worth his place.
Devin Toner 8: Possibly Toner's best performance in a blue jersey as he took on plenty of responsibility and worked hard over the course of 100 minutes. Deserved more.
Mike McCarthy 7: Up against world-class opposition and held his own in the tight exchanges, defensively strong but could have taken on more with ball in hand.
Jordi Murphy 6: A mixed afternoon for the still developing flanker who worked hard and made some important tackles, but was responsible for a needless penalty and a couple of handling errors.
Sean O'Brien 8: A gargantuan display from the Tullow native whose work at the breakdown did huge damege to Toulon. Showed them what they missed out on.
Jamie Heaslip 8: The captain is also his team's most important player and he kept going right until the end, carrying the fight to the team he turned down last year and coming off unbowed.
Marty Moore (7) made another crucial poach when his team needed and it’s becoming a habit. Scrum wasn’t really weakened by his or Jack McGrath’s (6) introduction, while Richardt Strauss (6) made his presence felt even if he’ll lament a crooked throw. Eoin Reddan (5) couldn’t up the pace significantly and kicked poorly, while Zane Kirchner (5) rarely got into the game after being beaten for his first ball by Habana. Gordon D’Arcy (6) showed well with ball in hand, while the others weren’t on long enough to rate.
Matt O’Connor 6: The coach can be proud of his team’s efforts after a difficult few weeks. Tactics weren’t pretty, but they were effective, and driving Toulon that close is no mean feat.