Wednesday 13 December 2017

Blues on cusp of European greatness

Leinster 32 Toulouse 23

Leinster players congratulate Brian O'Driscoll after he scored his side's crucial second try in the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Leinster players congratulate Brian O'Driscoll after he scored his side's crucial second try in the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran

You lost count of the number of times you heard the line last week that the events of 12 months ago had no relevance to yesterday.

Different time, different place and largely different teams, with Toulouse for example starting just three of the forward pack that demolished Leinster's scrum in that semi-final. When the line was coming from Les Toulousains then you were more inclined to accept it, for it was in their interest to believe that Leinster would be a whole lot better this time around. When it came from Leinster mouths, however, you knew it was just match-speak.

The starting point for Leinster's bid to get to another Heineken Cup final was to balance the books with Toulouse.

A crowd of 50,073 witnessed Joe Schmidt's side do just that. It was a phenomenal game of rugby, a reminder that despite laws that confuse as many as understand them, and with interpretations of those laws that vary from one jurisdiction to another, sometimes rugby is simply the best game on the planet.

The endgame was perfect, if you like white-knuckle rides. Toulouse were chasing down a nine-point deficit when with four minutes left, replacement Nicolas Bezy nonchalantly tapped over a penalty from almost the halfway line.

Then they went into default mode, looking like an outfit who have found themselves in this sort of predicament before and knew exactly how to get out of it. It would require skill and organisation and commitment but they are well stocked on all three fronts.

So they ran through their plays, dragging Leinster this way and that, but the home defence held firm. Finally the Blues managed to interrupt French rhythm enough to have, as the last say of the game, Jonny Sexton standing over a penalty to end the contest. He knocked it over for stats of eight from eight. Fantastic shooting in such a pressured game.

He was one of so many Leinster players to deliver when it was really needed. And after a woeful opener where they were seven points down after five minutes -- in that period they had lost their first two lineouts and been blown for early engagement on the first scrum -- Schmidt needed the big men to stand up.

None stood taller than Isa Nacewa. He had a many memorable moments, but his one-on-one confrontation with Gregory Lamboley late in the game was a simple enough in its stakes: if he missed the tackle Toulouse were in for a try and maybe the game. He nailed him.

The man of the match award went to Jamie Heaslip, who carried and tackled as well at the finish as he had at the start. The man who changed the game, however, was Isaac Boss. Schmidt sprung him and Heinke van der Merwe in the 53rd minute after Eoin Reddan had struggled, and Cian Healy had almost run out of fuel. Perfect timing for Leinster needed to change something.

Van der Merwe's first scrum came just after Healy -- his last act of the game -- had made a great run which ended in Leinster being done for accidental offside. Scrum to Toulouse, and having conceded a try 10 minutes earlier to Louis Picamoles off the back of a dominant scrum, Leinster suddenly timed everything right and shunted forward for a penalty from referee Dave Pearson, who had a good game. Sexton slotted the kick -- he had struck perfectly on 49 minutes with another penalty -- and Leinster were back in the lead.

It would be misleading to describe what happened after that as the home team holding on to their lead, even if that's they did.

For a while they looked to be running the risk of playing containment, but then, just before the hour, Brian O'Driscoll slipped the tackle of Vincent Clerc to score from close range after a lengthy period of Leinster pressure. Sexton's conversion left Toulouse having to score twice, which given their calibre was not something interpreted as being comfy by the home bench.

From the start the French had looked like they were going to enjoy themselves. Buoyed by the wicked bounce in Leinster's in-goal area that allowed Florian Fritz to score that early try -- he deserved his good luck for following up David Skrela's penalty which hit the outside of the post -- they gave the Leinster defence a torrid time, such was their ability to offload in the tackle. Fantastic to watch, but nightmarish to defend against.

Sexton helped Leinster recover from that setback with two penalties to one from Skrela to leave them trailing 6-10 before Heaslip scored on the half-hour mark. Somehow he managed to round off good pressure by sneaking the ball through the middle of a clump of red shirts to score. Sexton's conversion gave them a three-point lead but it lasted only six minutes.

The price of O'Driscoll not coming through the gate when trying to mug Clerc was three points and 10 minutes in the bin.

The crowd moaned long and hard but it was a fair call. Stupidly, with the last play of the half, Toulouse's Patricio Albacete allowed Sexton to nudge the 14 men ahead going into the break, which in the circumstances was a great psychological boost.

When O'Driscoll came back his team were trailing but that was about to change very fast. And with Boss on the field, making yet another World Cup statement to Declan Kidney, Leinster had enough to get through the rest of the game. Cardiff beckons.

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