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Jordi Murphy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jordi Murphy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jordi Murphy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

LEINSTER'S lionhearts showed the sheer character that separates champions from contenders in what was an epic eighty-minute 29-22 triumph over French champions Castres Olympique.

The magical aura of the Heineken Cup came to life at Stade Pierre Antoine where a club that rarely loses at home engaged in hand-to-hand combat with one that rarely loses anywhere in this competition.

Prop Cian Healy made a near miraculous recovery from a foot injury for what was designed to be impact off the bench. It would turn out to be crucial.

In fact, it looked like he would be badly needed earlier than expected as Castres started with purpose and punch nowhere more effectively than at the scrum where Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross never gave less than their best.

Leinster were initially undone by the combination between openside Ibrahim Diarra and centre Remi Lamerat breaking the line for Scotland lock Richie Gray to finish out wide. Scrum-half Cedric Garcia converted.

The Irish province needed something quickly. Hooker Cronin almost had the gas to exploit Jamie Heaslip's inside ball only to be hauled down from behind by Diarra to prevent a try from a questionable entry into the ruck.

Leinster did not even have time to curse their luck as Castres struck with lightening precision, Lamerat resisting contact, Remi Grosso skipping down the left wing and Brice Dulin taking his flat pass for a second try, Garcia converting, for 14-0 in the 22nd minute.

It was beginning to look like a contest between one side that was taking its chances and another which wasn't. Jordi Murphy twice came close to forcing his way over at the back of a maul.

Then, a scrum that had been creaking to that point was beautifully controlled by number eight Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan whipping the ball away from the base for Jimmy Gopperth to step inside Remi Tales for a sweet try, which he converted just before the half-hour.

Immediately, Castres fly-half Tales had to leave the fray, replaced by Daniel Kirkpatrick just before the Leinster scrum was splintered by tight-head Karena Wihongi. Garcia slipped his penalty right of the sticks.

When lock Devin Toner strayed into a maul from the side, Garcia stretched the advantage to double figures from wide on the left.

Just when Castres looked to be moving out of reach, Leinster quite simply put together their best phase play of the season, sparked by the razor sharp Luke Fitzgerald and concluded by Gopperth beating away Lamerat and getting past Gray for 17-12 at the break.

The helter-skelter nature continued with Castres powering on at the scrum, receiving the benefit of the doubt at the ruck from referee Nigel Owens and Lamerat causing problems in the midfield.

Leinster needed to relieve pressure. They weren't able to do that, Brian O'Driscoll over-cooking a punt out of defence to invite pressure back on.

They almost paid the ultimate price only for O'Driscoll to make up for his previous error by stealing a ball in the shadow of his posts.

His angry reaction to Garcia's use of his boot at a ruck prompted referee Owens to look to the video assistant. A penalty was the outcome. Gopperth narrowed the difference to two.

This was when full-back Rob Kearney stepped forward to launch a monster drop goal similar to that which felled Clermont Auvergne in the 2012 semi-final, putting Leinster ahead for the first time in the 57th minute. Gopperth made it a four-point game from a counter-attack after an hour.

Suddenly, Castres' discipline seemed to desert them, Diarra arriving way too late to get his hands dirty at a ruck. Gopperth knocked over another penalty for 24-17 in the 63rd minute.

A jet-propelled surge out of defence by Marcel Garvey tempted Cronin into a rash intervention at a ruck. He was binned and Castres were camped no more than five metres from the Leinster line.

They could not make it count. D'Arcy got in to rip the ball free. Toner and Martin Moore's double tackle paid an instant dividend.

Heaslip was a pest at the maul. Healy was there too and Jennings flew into the wreckage to disrupt a dangerous Castres set-piece manoeuvre.

Soon, Gopperth turned over the ball at a ruck. Ian Madigan linked the play. Healy cut inside Gray and sent Murphy away on the outside for the third try.

And that was the game.


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