Sexton shocker as Cullen's men blow chance and bow out
Toulon 24-9 Leinster
AC/DC's Highway to Hell rang out around the Stade Felix Mayol after Nigel Owens had sounded the final whistle but Leinster didn't need reminding. They were already there.
What's worse, they had sent themselves. Already in purgatory thanks to their defeats to Wasps and Bath, they committed hara kiri in the south of France.
Toulon were eminently beatable yesterday - their set-piece creaked and their attacking game suffered from a lack of familiarity - yet they managed the game far better than their visitors, who undermined a big effort with an alarming lack of accuracy.
Both of the hosts' tries came from mauls; Leinster dealt with their ball carriers all day.
Leo Cullen's game-plan was spot on, but their skill levels were shocking at times and they were well beaten at the breakdown. It is a long time since they could call themselves the best passing team in Europe.
The chief culprit was Johnny Sexton, who just can't seem to get into the groove since returning from Racing 92. Opportunities knocked, but the out-half let them pass him by at an alarming rate. There were kicks out on the full, poor passes and even a botched restart.
Yet he remained on for 80 minutes as the game slipped beyond his side and the champions managed their lead cleverly during the second half.
Cullen defended the out-half, who signed a lucrative four-year deal to return but has yet to justify their faith.
"He did a lot of really good things well," was the coach's take. "We started with great intent, tried to shift the ball to the space. We looked dangerous attacking from our own area, he nailed some huge kicks for us in that first half. He'll get better and better I think."
Sexton wasn't the only culprit: three yellow cards and 17 penalties made it almost impossible for the visitors to get a result at such an imposing venue despite outstanding performances from Luke Fitzgerald and Josh van der Flier.
"It's very expensive. We're a team that doesn't give away penalties like that normally," Cullen said. "We have had three yellow cards this season but to have three in the one game is pretty costly. Especially away from home."
On Saturday, the best team in Europe come to Dublin for the return leg, which now has nothing at stake for the Irish side, who have lost their first three pool games for the first time.
The tone of the game was set in the opening minute when Leinster established some decent field position and Sexton kicked the ball dead.
When Matt Stevens collapsed the subsequent scrum just inside his own half, the Ireland out-half put his side ahead and the visitors displayed their intent to keep the ball in hand and move the enormous Toulon pack around the pitch, and a crisp Rob Kearney pass to Fergus McFadden saw the winger race into enemy territory and Florian Fresia handed Sexton a chance to double his side's lead.
It was a promising start that had the eerily quiet Stade Felix Mayol crowd of 12,590 worried, but they were soon on their feet when Cian Healy lost his and conceded a scrum penalty. Matt Giteau went to the corner and, while Leinster dealt with the initial maul, a second surge saw them obliterated and Steffon Armitage touched down.
Eric Escande converted the try and added a penalty when Mike McCarthy was harshly adjudged to have strayed offside.
Inaccuracy was killing the visitors who were causing problems when they cut out the mistakes. Oddly, Isa Nacewa and Sexton were the worst culprits.
Despite going behind and hurting themselves with errors, they remained well in the game as Van der Flier and Fitzgerald hurled themselves low at Toulon ball-carriers and deprived the champions of momentum.
A neat Sexton wraparound saw McFadden again find room up the right and when they moved the ball inside, Leinster forced an offside in the Toulon backline and Sexton narrowed the gap to a point.
Yet, when Healy saw yellow for a knee on Guilhem Guirado it looked like Cullen's men were in trouble. Healy may not have seen the hooker getting off the ground when he ran into him, but the replays didn't look good.
During his 10 minutes off, Leinster showed huge strength to keep the four-in-a-row chasing home side scoreless. Toulon went to the corner, but Devin Toner got a hand in to prevent the maul forming and Rhys Ruddock held Ma'a Nonu up with some help from Van der Flier and Fitzgerald.
Bernard Laporte's decision to field so many massive ball carriers was coming back to haunt his side as their lineout grew increasingly sloppy and they coughed up turnovers. That allowed Leinster to spend some time in the opposition half and, while they couldn't quite get their attacking game going, it was clear that there was space to be found in the wide channels if the passes stuck.
Toulon's lineout problems again handed Leinster an opportunity and Fitzgerald made headway in midfield with some brilliant footwork, but Sexton's pass was behind Rob Kearney and the full-back knocked on.
The out-half's evening was getting progressively worse and he pulled a kickable penalty wide, and then Ben Te'o obstructed Mamuka Gorgodze, which handed Toulon another chance to maul. This time they got their set-up right and Toner hauled it down. That was one too many for Nigel Owens, who sent the second-row to the sin-bin and Leinster were in trouble again.
Toulon attacked through the phases, but the defensive effort kept them to an Escande penalty despite a series of phases close to the Leinster line.
The scrum-half pushed the lead out to seven points when Kearney was penalised for holding on after being chased down by Delon Armitage, before a scrum penalty allowed Escande to put 10 points between the sides.
A Ruddock turnover gave Leinster one last chance, but after Fitzgerald had forced a lineout, Sean Cronin's throw fell short. In the end, Steffon Armitage scored off another maul in the closing seconds after Tom Denton had seen yellow. Up when the newspapers, Leinster were done.
TOULON - D Armitage (T Taylor 60); B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu (M Mermoz 70), D Mitchell; M Giteau, E Escande (A Meric 77); F Fresia (X Chiocci 52), G Guirado (A Etrillard 60), M Stevens(L Chilachava h-t); S Manoa (J Suta 54), R Taofifenua; M Gorgodze (J Smith 52), S Armitage, D Vermeulen.
LEINSTER - R Kearney (D Kearney 63); F McFadden, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald (I Madigan 77), I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 52); C Healy (J McGrath 50), R Strauss (S Cronin (50), M Ross (M Moore 50); D Toner, M McCarthy (T Denton 63); R Ruddock, J van der Flier (J McGrath 30-35, J Murphy 70) , J Heaslip.
Ref - N Owens (Wales)