Thursday 23 March 2017

Tony Ward: Missed opportunity as Leinster finally show their mettle

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Jimmy Gopperth watches as his conversion comes back off the upright during Leinster’s defeat to Toulon
Jimmy Gopperth watches as his conversion comes back off the upright during Leinster’s defeat to Toulon

The agony and ecstasy of knock out rugby at the very highest level, and it made for compelling stuff. It could hardly have been less like the final day of the Six Nations, but if you like your sport raw and from the heart, then this was unmissable.

Does it make defeat any easier for Leinster to stomach? When you give it your all and leave nothing behind, then you just have to credit the opposition for going one better on the day.

It was without doubt the most complete Leinster performance of the season. The cynics will say that wouldn't be hard, but this was a semi-final they could have won, possibly should have won. In the days and years to come will look back for sure on a golden opportunity lost.

They started slowly, but led at the break. It was an eminently forgettable first half - the conditions didn't help.

One objective was to be still in touch on the hour, and Leinster achieved that, growing visibly in strength as the seamlessness of the front-row changes added to the bulging self-belief.

They did squander opportunities which should have swung it in normal time, with Ian Madigan missing a kickable penalty on the left and Jimmy Gopperth failing to land a drop-goal despite a reasonably solid connection.

On such small margins are games of this magnitude and intensity won and lost.

Solid

The set piece was solid, and there were big performances right throughout the team, not least from skipper Jamie Heaslip, with Jordi Murphy not far behind.

Devin Toner too was immense and when Ali Williams was yellow-carded for taking out the towering Leinster lock in the air - wrongly in my view - it seemed as if the trip to Twickenham in a fortnight was back on the agenda.

But credit where credit is due. Toulon may be a club of highly-paid superstars drawn from all over the world, but selfish mercenaries they are not.

When the chips were down and they were reduced to 14 men, with the scores level, they turned the normal scenario in such circumstances on its head when racing into a ten-point lead.

The try was unquestionably the direct result of a Madigan error. One of those occasions when putting it through the hands rather than opting for the long miss-out pass was clearly the more pragmatic option.

With Bryan Habana the last defender standing, it was dicing with death. The former World Player of the Year read it to perfection and in that minute the result was done and dusted - or so we thought.

But Sean O'Brien's try from a maul re-opened the possibility of the seemingly impossible. If Gopperth had landed the conversion instead of hitting the upright, there would have been just a kick in it, with every possibility of the dreaded penalty kicking shoot-out. Quite why they have this ridiculous arrangement is beyond me. In a sense I'm glad it wasn't tested.

Had the Blues sneaked it, Toulon could not have complained such was the substance to this long-overdue Leinster effort.

Williams' sin-binning offered a window of opportunity but Toulon immediately closed it off. That is the mettle of champions and why they are now chasing an unprecedented hat-trick against Clermont in two weeks' time.

But had Leinster made it they would have done so on merit. It was that kind of knife-edge game. It eventually swung on one error of judgement and while not wishing to labour the point, Madigan will know that better than anyone.

It was at the other end of the excitement spectrum from the Six Nations finale but try telling that to the Toulon supporters.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and on a day when winning was all that mattered this latest semi-final success was beautiful in the extreme to Toulon.

And Jonno Gibbs and Clermont will be viewing their similarly hard-fought win over Saracens the previous day in much the same light.

Quite whether a one-country final - and remember we had an all Ireland affair when last in London in 2012 - is good for the tournament I'm not so sure, but given how deep both French clubs have had to go, this repeat of Dublin 2013 is well deserved.

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