Saturday 21 April 2018

Leinster restore some pride but suffer another mauling

Leinster 16 Toulon 20

Rob Kearney is tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud during yesterday’s Champions Cup Clash.
Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Rob Kearney is tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud during yesterday’s Champions Cup Clash. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It's likely that if you drop into Toulon training any day of the week you'll be able to watch them practise the maul. For a long time. And then some more.

If it was a source of comfort to them last week in Stade Mayol, then it was nothing compared to its effectiveness yesterday evening in the Aviva. 'What will we do with this penalty lads? . . . Eh, let's kick it to touch and maul.'

Not great to look at, and if you were a Leinster forward then not much fun trying to defend it. You wondered if the home side would have been better off contesting in the air more than on the ground, for the risk attached to not winning possession was much the same. Either way, you could trace all their points, directly or indirectly, to the moveable feast in red that was the Toulon maul.

"When it comes to the last 30 metres we see the scrum, the maul, the ruck - and we are stronger there than Leinster," coach Bernard Laporte said afterwards. "At half-time we said that they (Leinster) were not dangerous - but we kept giving easy points away."

Leo Cullen was disappointed that his side failed to hold onto their lead. "They're a very hard team to play against when you're chasing the game," he said. "It was important that we try and build a lead. Unfortunately, we allowed them to play too much in the second half and we didn't manage our field position very well. That power is very hard to control."

On a day when Wasps went to Bath and emptied the home team there was some pressure on the reigning champions to make it back-to-back wins over Leinster. Trailing 5-16 at the break, they had their work cut out for them. And with the third quarter almost done they had passed up enough scoring chances to give hope to the 44,925 crowd that their team would prevail.

Toulon persevered however. And in the grind of penalty-touch-maul-penalty-points, they were more comfortable than the winning margin would suggest.

As for Leinster, they are now in the unique position of losing four from four in a pool stage, and five from five if you care to go back to the end of last season's competition. As with last week they played plenty of decent rugby, and were well worth their half-time lead.

Nobody illustrated the improvement better that Johnny Sexton. As he stood over a penalty with almost the last play of the half you wondered would he nail it - from 50 metres - to make it four from four. It had come courtesy of a dumb late hit by Delon Armitage on Eoin Reddan. Sexton was picking up the tee from the moment he struck it. A week ago in Stade Mayol the outhalf - who bizarrely had been left on the field for the duration - had a woeful time of it. A week later in a team playing on the edge, he looked altogether sharper, and happier.

Initially Leinster's scrum was good, but the loss of Mike Ross - with a "significant hamstring tear" according to Cullen who also revealed that Te'o was concussed and Sexton has a tight quad - didn't help. At their best in that first half Leinster were very good, and when Duane Vermeulen was binned close to his own line early in the game they needed to lay down a marker. Seven points, as it turned out, was a decent return. That it should come from a penalty try off a maul probably gave it added value.

Along with an earlier penalty from Sexton, it gave Leinster a 10-0 lead. Man of the match Juan Smith cut that in half when Isa Nacewa tried to cut him off close to the Leinster line, and failed - it would happen the Leinster captain later in the day - but another two Sexton penalties put them in a strong position, reflected in a penalty count in their favour of 5-1. Despite Toulon's profligacy there was an inevitability to it all once they got the break they were looking for: a penalty try off a second collapsed scrum left just four points in it on 58 minutes, and a mauled try for Anthony Etrillard eight minutes later gave them the lead.

Even with 14 minutes left you couldn't see Leinster getting close enough to the Toulon line to regain the upper hand. Instead the French defended aggressively, high up the field, and with seven minutes left Tom Taylor tacked on a penalty, leaving Leinster needing a try. They never got close.

To be out of the running with two games still to play is not what Leinster fans have in their sights at the start of any campaign. These are changed times. They'll need to readjust their expectations.

Scorers - Leinster: Penalty try; Sexton 3 pens, con. Toulouse: Penalty try, Smith, Etrillard try each; Taylor pen, con.

Leinster: R Kearney; D Kearney, B Te'o (I Madigan 39), L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton (Z Kirchner 67), E Reddan (N McCarthy 77); J McGrath (C Healy 46), R Strauss (S Cronin 46), M Ross (M Moore 25), D Toner, M McCarthy (T Denton 57), R Ruddock, J Heaslip (J Murphy 70; yc 78), J van der Flier.

Toulon: D Armitage (T Taylor 46); B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M Giteau, E Escande ( S Tillous Borde 46); F Fresia (Z Choccii 47) G Guirado (A Etrillard 50), M Stevens (L Chilachava 47) J Suta (M Gorgodze 67), R Taofifenua (K Mikautadze 51), J Smith (J Fernandez Lobbe 57), D Vermeulen (yc 13-23), S Armitage.

Referee: W Barnes (England)

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