Saturday 18 November 2017

Blue bloods have final say in battle royal


Leinster were magnificent again yesterday. And they needed to be. They approached their Heineken Cup semi-final with the status of tournament favourites, but nobody could deny Toulouse's status as the true aristocrats of European club rugby.

In another pulsating encounter, Leinster ousted the defending champions 32-23 at the Aviva Stadium to give themselves a golden opportunity to add to their 2009 triumph at the Millennium Stadium on May 21. Northampton or Perpignan will provide the opposition.

No fear now anyway. In the knock-out stages, Leinster have beaten the tournament's two most successful clubs and done so with oodles of heart and no little sense of authority. The nine-point margin was a touch misleading as the last of Jonathan Sexton's six penalties arrived as the game eased into additional time.

Toulouse had pushed them hard for the try that might have sneaked them victory, but it would have been rough justice on Leinster had it come.

It said something about Joe Schmidt's men that, in a nerveless display, Sexton converted all of his eight kicks yet it wasn't enough for him to be considered for the man of the match accolade. That fell instead to Jamie Heaslip, who delivered his best performance for ages. They could have looked too at Seán O'Brien or Cian Healy who, despite departing after 52 minutes, had acquitted himself superbly.

Leinster had to do it the hard way. After four minutes, a David Skrela penalty had cannoned off the post and bounced kindly for the alert Florian Fritz to touch down. It was an early hammer blow for Leinster. It was compounded when Skrela kicked Toulouse level in the 36th minute after an infringement for which Brian O'Driscoll was sin-binned.

Not until O'Driscoll redeemed himself with another critical try -- his 30th in the Heineken Cup -- after 58 minutes was the gap between them more than a converted score.

It was a day too for Schmidt to hold his head up high. Consider, for example, that Healy had just distinguished himself with a pulsating run 10 minutes into the second half only to be immediately replaced by Heinke van der Merwe. In his first scrum, Van der Merwe won Leinster a penalty that enabled Sexton to edge them in front for the first time since O'Driscoll's yellow card.

The most astonishing thing of all was the succession of Leinster players who came forward afterwards bemoaning the team's performance. "Don't think we were at our best," said Heaslip. "No guts, no glory I suppose."

"We didn't play great today," was O'Driscoll's verdict. "We ground it out." If they catch form in Cardiff, then they will surely take some stopping.

Earlier, there was no joy for Munster at Thomond Park as they bowed out of the Amlin Challenge Cup courtesy of a 20-12 semi-final defeat against Harlequins. In front of a crowd of 25,700, Munster delivered a curiously subdued and insipid performance.

They trailed 14-0 after 34 minutes and were never able to get to grips with a Harlequins side which played the brighter rugby and weren't diminished by the prospect of playing in one of European rugby's most imposing venues.

And so the Irish representation in this year's Challenge Cup final was reduced to one: Conor O'Shea, director of rugby at Harlequins. Clearly, they had done their homework during the week and travelled to Limerick with supreme confidence they could win even though the statistics were stacked against them.

This season was just the first in 13 years that Munster had failed to reach the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. And until yesterday, they had only been beaten once at home in European competition: by Leicester back in 2006.

Munster had overcome their Heineken Cup disappointment by targeting the unique double of Magners League and Challenge Cup.

Now they have only the League to divert themselves. On yesterday's evidence, that could yet be hard work. The shocking truth was they were never really in the hunt. A Felix Jones try on the stroke of half-time brought them within seven points, but that margin only lasted seven minutes and, right to the end, Harlequins maintained the comfort of breathing space.

O'Shea and Harlequins now face Stade Francais in the final at the Cardiff City Stadium on May 20. Munster can only plough on with the League and, through gritted teeth, watch their Leinster rivals descend on a second crown in Cardiff in three weeks' time.

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