Sunday 26 May 2019

Leinster turn focus towards the game of their lives

Era-defining final awaits as ruthless champions serve reminder of class

Toulouse’s Cheslin Kolbe attempts to tackle Leinster’s James Lowe during yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Toulouse’s Cheslin Kolbe attempts to tackle Leinster’s James Lowe during yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The doubts about Leinster's form were washed away in the space of 10 breathtaking phases in the 13th minute of the first half.

When James Lowe took Seán O'Brien's perfectly weighted off-load, boshed Sebastien Bezy and powered through Rynhardt Elstadt to score, it concluded a piece of swash-buckling attacking play that served as a reminder of the class of this team.

Scott Fardy of Leinster scores his side's 3rd try during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Scott Fardy of Leinster scores his side's 3rd try during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The champions barely cast a backwards glance from there; their recently returned players like Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner soared and O'Brien rediscovered his mojo. They were physical and clever, ruthless and economical and they denied this superb Toulouse attack a try for 80 minutes.

And they know they will have to be better against Saracens in three weeks' time as the two best teams of the current era collide at St James' Park in Newcastle.

Having defeated their fellow four-time champions, Leinster now have a chance to go out on their own as the most successful team in the history of this tournament.

According to their captain it will take an era-defining performance against the team who have won the other two of the last three titles.

James Lowe of Leinster breaks through the tackle of Sébastien Bézy of Toulouse. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
James Lowe of Leinster breaks through the tackle of Sébastien Bézy of Toulouse. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

"Did you see the game yesterday?" Johnny Sexton said of the English side's ruthless dispatching of Munster on Saturday. "It was pretty physical. They're an outstanding side.

Feeling

"I've heard them reference our game last year as a big turning point for them in terms of them feeling they hadn't turned up on the day and fired as many shots as they wanted to. That's what they said.

"Obviously, they will have Billy Vunipola back who didn't play last year, he's such a huge player for them. You flip the switch straight away and start thinking about them. It's going to be probably the toughest game I've ever played with this group.

"We saw yesterday how they dominated Munster and we know how tough a side Munster are. So, we'll be up against it but we'll prepare now for the biggest battle of our careers."

Leinster beat the English champions at the quarter-final stage last season, but they look to be a different animal this season.

As Sexton referenced, they decimated Munster with their physical play and clever tactical kicking. Their attack was relentless and varied in equal measure and the Reds eventually succumbed to the inevitable.

Leinster are a better team, more conditioned to this level.

They'll need to be as switched on as they were in the 13th minute, across the full game, to get the result.

"You can see the way Saracens start the game, it's a pretty dangerous combination because with the power they have in their team if you're constantly defending it's going to be tough work against them.

"So you need to be able - to use the cliché I suppose - to fire shots. You need to be able to play against them, and how you manage possession.

"But they're a very efficient team. They don't burn that much energy.

"They're happy through 3, 6, 9, 12-0 early in a game, so your discipline needs to be good and now allow that scoreboard pressure. They're a very hard team to chase the game against because they just strangle you then.

"They're a well-coached team. They've been doing it for a number of years now. They've built a lot of experience as a group together as well, which makes them doubly dangerous. They're a great challenge for us."

He added: "It's really exciting. We talked about it being a privilege to be in a semi-final, it's an absolute privilege now to be in final, and now we've just got to get busy working again, which is a great thing.

"We just need to get the heads down again now and understand what it's going to take, and put a good plan together. We've got this game next week against Ulster on Saturday, so we'll try and turn our attention to that and then we'll look ahead."

This weekend, they face Ulster at Ravenhill with nothing on the line before they avail of a hard-earned weekend off that comes as reward for topping Conference B of the PRO14.

Saracens, meanwhile, take on Wasps away and Exeter at home but they are relatively comfortable in second on the Premiership ladder and will manage their big squad accordingly.

Leinster have plenty to build on.

Their set-piece was excellent and provided the second try for Luke McGrath as they kept Toulouse at bay, before Scott Fardy crossed for a third as they settled into one of their now trade-mark long periods of ball-in-hand in the opposition '22.

Their main injury worry centres around Sean Cronin who went off with a calf injury, but Rhys Ruddock, Andrew Porter and Jamison Gibson-Park should be in contention.

Leinster have beaten Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints, Ulster and Racing 92 in their four successful finals, but this will be their toughest.

"You don't get to a European Cup final being an average team," Sexton said when asked if this is the biggest challenge of the five. "But yeah, potentially. They've had a lot of experience, they've lost finals, won finals, so they've experienced both sides of the coin and I'm sure they will be relishing it."

Leinster - R Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (yc 31-41), J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 66), L McGrath (H O'Sullivan 79) C Healy (E Byrne 61), S Cronin (J Tracey 34), T Furlong (M Bent 66), D Toner, J Ryan (M Deegan 79), S Fardy, S O'Brien, J Conan (C Doris 79).

Toulouse - T Ramos (M Medard 55); Y Huget, S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kolbe; A Dupont, S Bezy (R Ntamack 54); C Castets (C Baille 51), P Mauvaka (G Marchand 63), C Faumuina (M van Dyk 51), R Arnold, R Gray (yc 25-35), R Elstadt, J Tekori (S Tolofua 51), J Kaino.

Ref - W Barnes (England).

Irish Independent

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