Sunday 18 March 2018

Breathtaking, heart-stopping

Magnificent Blues set standard few teams can match, says Neil Francis

I'm pretty sure Aristotle never played rugby but what he said centuries ago bears testament to what happened yesterday, and he described the core values of every player who played in such a scintillating match. He said: "Character is that which reveals moral purpose exposing the class of things a man chooses to do or avoid."

I'm still trying to make my mind up whether I have seen a better game played on this planet; certainly at this level I have never had my breath taken away to such an extent.

This match will have set a standard which very few teams will ever come close to. The fact that Leinster managed to run out winners shows the level they have moved to.

To progress you have always got to be in motion; if you stop to take stock or look in the mirror, or take a second out to ask someone what they think, you are gone. Leinster were probably quite aware of what was needed in their performance yesterday -- would they shrink from the immensity of the task put in front of them? They suspended reason. They put all notions of self-preservation into a vacuum and they played with incorruptible honesty and a sense of purpose that was too pure for a Toulouse side, who even though they were bettered on the day, would have beaten any other side in Europe.

Toulouse too knew that what they had produced thus far would leave them a long way short. They came with a plan and played with a brio and a relish that was almost unnatural. Both sides played with a complex mixture of optimism and cynicism and as every passage of play came, small things decided the outcome of this game.

I am certain again that both sets of players will be sore, very sore well into the end of this week. Leinster, in particular defensively, inflicted gratuitous pain, and every instalment of physical torment which was meted out to a red jersey was followed up with more infliction of their will.

I think Norman Mailer said that desire for success lubricates secret prostitutions of the soul, I saw the physical torment that Leinster took and handed out and came back for more and I liked it. This team has no 'quit' gene.

Before this game I was not sure which way it would go. I was confident but hope had no real footing and my heart dropped as Leinster started with five calamitous mistakes literally in five minutes.

Jonathan Sexton changed direction from the kick-off, Shane Horgan made the first of four glorious takes in the air, but with the hard work done, his team-mates allowed him to be pushed into touch. Leinster strangely got the put-in and Leinster got the first of their three throws wrong. Yannick Nyanga picked off the first one. Richardt Strauss overthrew a pressurised Leinster line on the second. Luke Fitzgerald then dropped his first ball in a tight situation. Seconds later Leinster were pinged for an early engagement.

All elementary mistakes, but none which would match the looseness which would allow Florian Fritz to score the easiest try at this level after the ball bounced off the left upright and took a horrible bounce. It stayed in the air for an interminable amount of time and Leinster just stood rooted as the Toulouse centre snuck in and dotted down.

I had said midweek that strange things happen in matches of this magnitude and if ever something was going to test the mettle of Leinster's convictions it would be that they would concede a soft early try and that they would make simple mistakes. But this Leinster team are in a different class when it comes to attitude and mental conviction.

Both teams seemed to be conscious that this game would be won in the second half and were quite happy to inflict physical pain and inject lung-busting intensity as the exchanges went on it seemed for hours. Leinster recovered themselves and just looked ravenous when they got close to the line and after a series of pick and drives, unknown by anyone but the TMO, Jamie Heaslip snuck in under the cover.

At 13-10 Leinster had recovered themselves and had gained a little bit of momentum but all the way through to the last 10 minutes of the first half Toulouse played a game of off-load and ball out of contact which only one team in Europe could live with.

Leinster's momentum was halted in a deflationary period as Brian O'Driscoll was correctly sin-binned for not going back through the gate and attempting to play the ball on the Toulouse side five yards from his own line.

Leinster would need to play cleverly and did so as they managed to nick a crucial penalty when Patricio Albacete came in early on Nathan Hines when he was about to pick. That extra three points when they were not really in a position to score had a crucial effect on how the game transpired later on.

Leinster though could not survive another five minutes on the resumption and again they looked a little bit leaden-footed as Toulouse went at them from the off. Vincent Clerc's grubber was fielded by Gordon D'Arcy with one foot in play and one foot in the goal line and it should have been a 22 drop out.

Toulouse were given a scrum and after Leinster had patiently held up the inevitable the Toulouse scrum eventually got the power on. The scrum crabbed and went up on the left. Jean-Marc Doussain picked and went open back inside to Louis Picamoles. Eoin Reddan made his tackle, but where the hell was Sean O'Brien?

Nyanga had come across the other side of the scrum and held the Carlow man back which definitely stopped him getting anywhere close to Picamoles. Nyanga got a wonderful box in the chops for his efforts but more importantly it was 20-16 and Leinster's courage and resolve were to be tested again. It was never in doubt.

If you have this match in any recorded form you should watch the 50th to 52nd minute when I actually stopped taking down notes and watched in awe as both sides played a game of dare -- where they challenged each other to play as fast and mad a game as they could without stopping. It was scintillating play and I cannot do justice to the skill levels and courage displayed.

The course of this game changed with two substitutions made in the 53rd minute, one involving this compelling duel between Reddan and Isaac Boss for the No 9 jersey.

Reddan was unsure in a lot of things that he did -- his box-kicking and his passing were not the crispest or sharpest I've seen this season, he got swallowed up an awful lot by the very powerful Toulouse back row and he did not seem to be able to launch O'Brien or Heaslip with any great effect.

Boss trots on in tandem with Shane Jennings and it was suddenly a whole different ball game as he played with and tormented the Toulouse fringe.

After a series of glorious sorties, they got O'Driscoll over on a penalty advantage to lead 29-20. The danger was that Leinster would settle for containment which is suicide. Leinster could sit back on the ropes and play rope-a-dope against most sides, but the surety of passing and the quality of the running and the cold blooded nature of the ability of Toulouse to get it wide from one side of the pitch to the other was astonishing.

Leinster defended with their lives and with no little intelligence and luck. We too had the luck to watch such a superior game of rugby, a real contest. Leinster closed out after they had kept their discipline even their scrum functioned to the end.

To conclude: in the heat of the battle in the 61st minute Isa Nacewa pulled off the best catch from an up-and-under I have ever seen. There were moments of enthralling skill demonstrated by both sides which I am looking forward to re-living during the week.

Also, I don't think I have ever been so deafened by such a noise and such atmosphere as yesterday. The thing about Leinster and the questions that were asked is that ultimately heroes are men. And who would argue with the gods because they are sure of themselves?

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