Leinster were dumped out of the Champions Cup by three-time champions Toulon when they failed to score in the second-half as the three-in-a-row champions recovered from a 16-5 deficit at the break.
Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip both looked miserable in the Aviva as they were hauled off before the end as head coach Leo Cullen tried in vain to prevent Leinster’s worst run in European history extending to five successive losses.
It was, though, a radically improved performance as Leinster seemed liberated in the first-half, backed by an enthusiastic 44,000 crowd, before Toulon’s renowned forward power suffocated the blue-shirted players in a bruising second-half.
Earlier Leinster, including Sexton, looked completely at ease and a penalty try, added to Sexton’s expertise from the tee, allowed the home side build a 16-5 advantage.
It could, in fact, have been much more as Toulon barely fired a shot until Juan Smith’s late try, and Leinster were guilty of fluffing a couple of really promising try-scoring chances which could have gave them the oxygen they desperately required later on.
Leinster looked liberated from the off, kicking expertly, off-loading in the tackle whereas Toulon came out of the traps as if they’d just completed the twelve pubs.
After an early Rhys Ruddock lineout steal, Leinster were awarded a maul penalty in the early moments but Eoin Reddan’s desire to take a quick penalty was not matched by Heaslip’s inside read of his scrum-half’s run.
Jonathan Sexton, seeking redemption himself no more than his side, didn’t refuse a penalty opportunity in the 11th minute after Josh van der Flier did to Steffon Armitage what the Englishman has been doing to the rest of Europe for the past three years.
Buoyed by their 3-0 lead, and the belated arrival of the Saturday shoppers, made Toulon look like chumps, not champs; Mike McCarthy, on his 300th club appearance, smashed his opposite number, Romain Taofifenua on his 22.
Luke Fitzgerald hacked forward, Rob Kearney sacked Delon Armitage and, as Leinster poured forwards looking for the try, Toulon committed three different offences.
Duane Vermuelen was binned for the last one while Taofifenua went to have his head literally examined; Leinster again spurned the penalty but, from the scrum, Luke Fitzgerald’s pass to Dave Kearney was both forward and intercepted by Bryan Habana.
But they had Toulon on the rack; more infringements gave Leinster the chance to kick to the corner; they wanted more than three points. And, in the 18th minute, they got them; a brilliant, close-in maul pummelling the champions and the inevitable conversion put Leinster 10-0 ahead.
Leinster were in utter control, as Matt Giteau kicked the restart straight into touch but, somehow, they loosened their grip; a defensive mis-read from Luke Fitzgerald started it and an Isa Nacewa mis-read finished it.
Both men shot up in the line as Leinster shot themselves in the foot. In between times, Leinster’s first penalty concession after 25 minutes – they had conceded 17 last week – allowed Toulon to kick to the corner.
Although initially repelled, the elegant back-row Juan Smith burst through Nacewa’s attempted tackle to dot a 28th minute try that was totally against the run of play; Eric Escande fluffed the penalty but at least Toulon haad halved the deficit.
They still looked half-hearted though as Leinster stormed back at them thanks to Rob Kearney’s brilliant chip and chase, followed by Rhys Ruddock’s barnstorming run.
All the pressure, including a rare penalty against Steffon Armitage, finally allowed Sexton to extend the advantage to 13-5 in the 35tth minute.
A cheap shot by Steffon’s brother, Delon, on the hugely influential Eoin Reddan, offered Sexton a long-range shot to nothing on the whistle of half-time; the out-half gave it everything and with it a more than deserved 16-5.
Even former Leinster boss Joe Schmidt was enthused: "They were super, they controlled a lot of the gam and used possession very well. They’ve been more accurate and the defensive line speed is really good.”
Toulon opened the second-half by winning a breakdown penalty on their 22 and from the subsequent lineout maul another; Escande fluffed his lines yet again to Leinster’s relief before concussed Ben Te’o’s replacement Ian Madigan’s enterprising restart indicated the soaring levels of Leinster’s restored confidence.
Toulon probably played some of their best rugby in the third quarter but Leinster’s defence remained rock-solid and, after numerous phases from the French visitors, a choke tackle was greeted with as much enthusiasm as their try by the Aviva faithful.
Toulon’s best chance arrived in the 55th minute; a Dave Kearney concession allowed Toulon kick to the corner, which they repeated when McCarthy took out a man in the air; their initial maul failed and, when they went wide, Drew Mitchell spilled the ball when the try-line was at his mercy.
Just like his team, the Australian had clearly taken his eye off the ball. They were still in Leinster territory though and even opted for a scrum when awarded their fifth penalty of the second-half.
Mitchell then had another chance – Nacewa again shooting out of the line – but Sean Cronin’s last-ditch tackle attempt was just enough to push the Australian’s knee into touch. They would need the TMO yet again as Cronin, again, and Josh van der Flier, held up Vermuelen.
This was the game’s critical period. With Leinster tackling at the rate of two-to-one, Toulon turned the screw at scrum-time and, after just two penalties in front of the posts, Wayne Barnes awarded the second penalty try of the afternoon.
Replacement Tom Taylor added the 59th minute conversion for 16-12. It had taken them a lot of time to score but so too Leinster had expended so much energy in trying to prevent it.
The energy was visibly sapping and they tried to desperately kick their way out of their own territory; they were soaking tackles and more penalty concessions, the worst fromm Cian Healy, pinged them back into their red zone.
Toulon, in the 66th minute, made no mistake and, as they did twice last week, they rumbled to the line and Anthony Etrillard was awarded the try as Toulon edged ahead, despite Taylor’s missed conversion.
Leo Cullen hauled off Sexton and Heaslip as the game hung in the balance with ten minutes left but a relieving scrum penalty five metres from their line lifted the siege.
Not for long. Taylor kicked a penalty in the 74th minute to leave Leinster needing a try, now 20-16 down.
Nick McCarthy came on for his European debut; Jordi Murphy went to the bin as Toulon pressed for the bonus point try that they needed at the business end of this pool.
For Leinster, this confirmed that their business in Europe is at an end.
Captain Isa Nacewa said Leinster couldn’t handle Toulon’s forward power as his side were dumped out of Europe by the three-time champions.
“It was good after 45 minutes,” said Nacewa, whose side led 16-5 at half-time before drawing a second-half blank as Toulon ended up 20-16 victors.
“I was proud of the way we turned up but once again they played pressure rugby and we couldn’t deal with it in the second-half.
“They are a class side, look at their back-line and they are complemented by the forwards. They keep pressure on when they crawl back into games like that. You have to keep pressure on them.
“They are world-class, they can bring guys on and they are great to watch. We have to get ready now for Munster and then we have Connacht, two big local derbies. It’s a tough old road but we have to get back on the horse.”
Man of the match Juan Smith, scorer of the first of three Toulon tries, was pleased his side had prevented a potential shock exit before the quarter-final stages as they seek a “drive for four.”
“We were pleased after the loss against Wasps, we needed to win this game to remain in contention for the quarter-finals.
“It was a big comeback, the second-half was non-negotiable and we needed to stick to our game-plan. We back our drives and that had been the highlight last week.
“We still have Bath and Wasps at home, it will not get any easier. It was disappointing against Wasps but it can only get better from here.”
Leinster - R Kearney; D Kearney, B Te'o (I Madigan 39), L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa (c); J Sexton (, Z Kirchner 67), E Reddan; J McGrath (C Healy 47), R Strauss (S Cronin 47), M Ross (M Moore 25), D Toner, M McCarthy (T Denton 64), R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Heaslip (J Murphy 70).
Toulon - D Armitage (T Taylor 47); B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M Giteau (c), E Escande (S Tillous-Borde 47); F Fresia (X Chiocci 48), G Guirado (A Etrillard 50), M Stevens (, L Chilachava 48), J Suta (M Gorgodze 67), R Taofifenua (K Mikautadze 13-18/51), J Smith (J Fernandez Lobbe 58), S Armitage, D Vermeulen.
Ref - W Barnes (England)