Leinster taught a lesson by new kings of Europe
Toulon 29 Leinster 14
THEY passed like ships in the night in Dublin last May, but docked in the port of Toulon there was no doubting who Europe's kingpins are now.
Leinster's reign over European rugby is definitively over. Toulon's destroyer blew them out of the water, and if Munster needed bringing back down to earth as they basked in the glory of their win over Toulouse, they got it at the Stade Felix Mayol.
Rob Penney may have labelled the Blues the 'Six Nations champions', but one wonders what would happen if Mourad Boudjellal's soldiers of fortune were unleashed on the international game.
Here, on their own patch, with the sun on their backs, they are the scariest thing this side of the equator; a brimming mix of power and panache, with wise old heads and ball-hungry destroyers who possess a mean streak to boot.
On the ground, Mathieu Bastareaud and Steffon Armitage wreaked havoc, while they ripped into Leinster's line-out from the off.
Before the game, Matt O'Connor talked about the "marginal gains" needed to succeed at this cauldron, but there was nothing marginal in this.
The coach's two big selection calls backfired, with Jimmy Gopperth looking undercooked after just eight minutes' rugby in 45 days and Richardt Strauss enduring a torrid evening as Ian Madigan and Sean Cronin looked on.
But the real concern for O'Connor will be the gulf in class across the park. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy were tormented by Bastareaud again, as the legend – and club captain Leo Cullen – departed the European scene with a whimper.
The coach said talk of this marking the end of an era was premature, but from high in the stands it looked like he has a bigger job on his hands than previously thought.
"It is a disappointing result, not so much to lose but the performance is disappointing," he said.
"We're a better side than that and we were second best today, but it's knock-out footie. If you're not very good, especially away from home, you won't get the result.
"I wouldn't read too much into it, I don't think it's a bigger issue than we underperformed today against a very good side."
Only Rhys Ruddock and Cian Healy looked truly at home in open play, while the scrum competed gamely and the back-three simmered but never caught fire.
Sean O'Brien acted as waterboy and they could have done with his power, but Leinster needed more than just one man. The loss of O'Brien and Johnny Sexton truly told yesterday.
The pain started early, even if Leinster managed to white-knuckle it all the way to half-time and go in level at the break.
Roared on by the vociferous home support, Bastareaud handled the ball three times in the opening two minutes and went forward each time, while the brilliant flanker Juan Smith brushed Mike McCarthy aside as if he wasn't there.
Shane Jennings' tackle on the former Springbok stopped a certain try, but his failure to release cost the visitors three points.
Strauss' throw wobbled from the start and that further invited the European champions, and Danie Rossouw in particular, into the game. When Jonny Wilkinson made it 6-0 with his second penalty, it was a relief to the visitors that it wasn't more.
Although they lost the prominent Fergus McFadden to a hamstring injury, Leinster's scrum brought them back into the game as Mike Ross forced a penalty from Xavier Chiocci and Gopperth got the Blues off the mark.
Toulon appeared to flag and Healy grew into the game, trying a chip – of all things – that he followed with a block-down on Wilkinson to pin the French into their own corner.
The incident also saw the fly-half strain his hamstring and although he tried to continue, he was forced off after less than half-an-hour. To compound things, the home pack hauled down the Leinster maul and Gopperth drew his side level.
It was tense, tight and the handling errors reflected the pressure.
Matt Giteau moved to out-half and missed a long-range effort at goal but he kept sending his men at Irish defenders and, by the time the half-time whistle came, Toulon had been to Leinster's '22' five times and left with no tries.
Something had to give.
Parity lasted 120 seconds of second-half play as Shane Jennings got isolated and Chiocci forced a penalty that Giteau nailed from almost half-way.
Toulon smelled blood and when hooker Craig Burden skipped through Devin Toner's poor tackle, they finally kept the ball long enough to score, throwing giant after giant at the blue line until eventually Chiocci forced his way over. Giteau converted to put 10 points between the sides.
Leinster looked in real trouble. O'Connor whipped off Strauss and Jennings and looked to be doing the same with Gopperth until he got a penalty chance to bridge the gap.
He missed that one but nailed the next one seconds later when Chiocci failed to release.
Toulon's mistakes gave Leinster a glimmer of hope and playing with an advantage after a maul was hauled down, Gopperth released Zane Kirchner, who raced into the '22'. The excellent Ruddock carried on, but Steffon Armitage stole the ball from the out-half's follow-up and it sucked the life out of the attack.
Leinster still had the line-out to attack from, but Toner got his wires crossed with Reddan and the omnipresent Steffon Armitage hacked through and chased hard.
He couldn't collect his kick, but Florian Fresia tidied up and kept it alive for Bastareaud, who slipped D'Arcy and took two tacklers before off-loading to Drew Mitchell, who slipped D'Arcy as well to score.
Giteau converted from under the sticks and Delon Armitage then nailed an outrageous long-range penalty to put it beyond doubt at 26-9. The three-time champions refused to accept their fate and managed to get over the line through a driving maul that saw Jordi Murphy touch down in the corner, but Madigan – by now on far too late – missed the tough conversion.
There might have been further opportunities, but those marginal gains O'Connor had talked about in the build-up went awry.
Rob Kearney's raking penalty was brilliantly kept in on the five-metre line with time enough to repeat the maul trick and go again; instead it was Toulon who finished on the front foot.
Despite being down to 14 after Fresia's yellow card, Giteau nailed a penalty to rub the salt in.
It was Leinster's heaviest defeat in France since they lost 33-6 to Toulouse in 2007. They've come a long way since then and, having seen the market leaders, it looks like they have a lot of work to do to get back to the top.
TOULON – D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, D Smith; J Wilkinson (capt) (M Mermoz 28), S Tillous-Borde (M Claasens 67); X Chiocci (F Fresia 59), C Burden (JC Orioli 50), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni 69); D Rossouw (K Mikautadze 67), J Suta; J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe (V Bruni 70), S Armitage.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; F McFadden (Z Kirchner 17), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Gopperth (I Madigan 67), E Reddan (I Boss 76); C Healy (J McGrath 65), R Strauss (S Cronin 49), M Ross (M Moore 59); D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 70); R Ruddock, S Jennings (J Murphy 52), J Heaslip (capt). Ref – W Barnes (England)
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