French rugby is a game of contrasts: the beauty and the beast, the wild and the wonderful, Rimbaud and Rambo. In the greatest of the country's union strongholds, the two poles somehow meet in the middle, leaving opponents threatened by a scary form of brilliance. Is there anything more frightening in team sport than a Toulouse side discovering, if only for five minutes or so, its pulse, its drive, its rhythm? Short of being cornered in a dark alley by William Servat having just burgled the man's flat, precious little springs to mind.
Leinster, the holders of the Heineken Cup, found themselves pressed hard against a very high wall at Le Stadium, a fact that was not lost on their supporters – three small, blue- shirted pockets of them, seen bobbing in a sea of red every now and again. Torrential rain minimised the chances of the Dubliners' rock-star back division making their customary inroads, there was no Jonathan Sexton to plot a route through this semi-final from outside-half, and a poor selection in the front row virtually handed the hosts dominance in the scrum. Yet Brian O'Driscoll and company did what all worthy title-holders do: they fought like the very dogs of hell. On another day, against another side, it would have been enough. On Saturday against Toulouse, it was insufficient. Between the 55th and 62nd minutes, the Frenchmen struck a tempo that was close to irresistible, scoring tries through Yannick Jauzion and David Skrela that ensured a change of European champion.
Jauzion, one of the stand-out performers in this year's Six Nations Championship, having looked for all the world like a burnt-out case a few months previously, was at the heart of it. First, the centre broke Shaun Berne in the visitors' 22 to give the South African prop Daan Human a sight of the whitewash. Then he ran the most deceptive of dummy lines to free Florian Fritz, Clément Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc down the right. Scrambling defenders just about saw off that, but there was nothing to be done when Jauzion picked another precise angle off the side of a ruck to crash through Leo Cullen and Berne, whose second attempt at a tackle was every bit as fruitless as his first.
The try give Toulouse a seven-point lead, something approaching luxury on an occasion like this. More importantly, it left a shattered band of Leinstermen sucking bucketfuls of air into their lungs: Michael Cheika, their coach, attributed Skrela's follow-up strike directly to exhaustion. "That was a pretty clean-cut score," he said of the stand-off's splitting of Gordon D'Arcy and Isa Nacewa. "We don't usually let people through the middle of our defensive line. It was down to physical fatigue. Either that or a lack of communication, which in itself is the result of tiredness."
To their great credit, Leinster somehow found a way of resummoning the furies, to the extent that Jamie Heaslip was able to complete a fine try a dozen minutes from the end of normal time. Had they not done so, Toulouse would have won by 20 points or more, but having already tackled themselves to a standstill, there was no hope of anything more. However, it might have been different had their scrum not splintered in the first half, when Servat, Human and Benoît Lecouls laid the foundations for victory.
Cian Healy, identified as the long-term successor to Marcus Horan in the Ireland team, suffered the full range of torments at the set-piece, to the extent that Cheika withdrew him just past the half-hour and sent on the World Cup-winning Springbok prop C J Van der Linde, who should have been there in the first place. Healy sat forlornly on the bench, his head concealed beneath a training coat. Every now and again, a colleague gave him a sympathetic pat on the back, as though to say: "Chin up. It could be worse." Sure enough, worse became the reality. When Stan Wright had absorbed all the punishment he could take midway through the second half, Healey was thrown back on for a second helping of horror.
"That scrum of theirs was a powerful weapon," admitted Cullen, the captain. "We didn't cope with their tight-head prop getting under our loose-head." The supremely dangerous O'Driscoll, never more effective than when sending a perfect running kick bouncing into the Toulouse 22 in the build-up to Heaslip's try, agreed: "You need a quality platform. You want to be able to attack with your best skill-set and we couldn't do that."
There was a sadness about him as he contemplated the passing of the best 11 months in Leinster's history. "You get used to being European champions, accustomed to the ring of it," he continued. "We're not champions any more. We absolutely believed we could win it again, but it's for someone else to win it now."
Toulouse: Tries Jauzion, Skrela; Conversions Skrela 2; Penalties Skrela 4. Leinster: Try Heaslip; Conversion Berne; Penalties Berne 2, Kearney.
Toulouse C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans (M Medard, h-t); D Skrela (J-B Elissalde, 77), B Kelleher; D Human (Y Montes, 75), W Servat (V Lacombe, 78), B Lecouls (J-B Poux, 45), R Millo-Chluski (Y Maestri, 59), P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir (capt), S Sowerby (L Picamoles, 75).
Leinster R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; C Healy (C J Van der Linde, 33; M Ross, 78), J Fogarty, S Wright (Healy, 60), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin (M O'Kelly, 69), S Jennings (S Keogh, 54), J Heaslip.
Referee N Owens (Wales).
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