Leinster's European riches spark a much-needed boom for Ireland
Leinster 32 Toulouse 23
There is hyperbole in talking of super-powers in European rugby, when the professional game and the Heineken Cup are barely out of nappies, but Leinster are on the brink of joining the ranks of the elite and serial winners Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Wasps. In recessionary Dublin, where any taxi ride comes with a university-standard lecture on the economy, rugby is booming.
Leinster won the Heineken Cup in 2009, they were defeated by Toulouse in France in last year's semi-finals and now they are back for a second final – in Cardiff on 21 May – thanks to this pay-back win over the four-time European champions.
Home advantage played a huge part. Depending on how many paying punters they expect to squeeze in, Leinster have three stadia to choose from in and around the D4 postcode south of the Liffey: from dear old Donnybrook to the Royal Dublin Showground or – for this last-four set-to in front of 50,000 screaming spectators – the shiny, rebuilt Lansdowne Road (aka the Aviva Stadium, aka, the D4tress).
Munster may be on a temporary downer, but the Heineken Cup, born in 1995 with significant Celtic midwifery in the administrators Vernon Pugh and Tom Kiernan, has been the making of the Irish. The sporadic boon of the occasional tour match has been overtaken by the European odyssey and the opportunity to set Ireland at the head of Europe. The likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip – Leinster's try-scorers in this energetic, enervating match – need not be measured by Grand Slams or Lions tours alone. And their province can afford the wages to keep them happy.
The form line for the final points only to Leinster. What chance have Northampton got against a team who have knocked out the top three in France – Toulouse, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne – and England's top two, Saracens and Leicester?
You remember the way Leinster defended against Saracens at Wembley in the pool and ask how to unpick them. Toulouse's tries came from a lucky rebound to Florian Fritz in the fifth minute, and off the back of a scrum when the flanker Sean O'Brien was blocked by Yannick Nyanga from tackling the scorer, Louis Picamoles. There may be a citing for O'Brien for flinging a vengeful hand into the face of Nyanga. But you would bet a few Euros that any ban – if there is one – would be completed before the final.
Leinster have the all-court skills of Richardt Strauss, a South African hooker formerly of the Free State Cheetahs, matching what his much-praised compatriot Schalk Brits is doing for Saracens. And of course there is the peerless finisher O'Driscoll, who cut easily between Vincent Clerc and Census Johnston for his 30th Heineken Cup try (two behind Clerc as the all-time top scorer). Has the great centre ever botched a one-on-two chance, never mind a one-on-one?
Cup rugby dictates that upsets can happen but in Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander enjoying a fine first season as a head coach after assistant stints with Auckland Blues and Clermont, the "boys in blue" appear to have a master planner. "We spent two weeks looking at what we wanted to do against Toulouse," said Schmidt, who is being touted as the next Ireland coach. "There wasn't too much luck in that performance." Leinster rucked brilliantly and they had an improving scrum in which Cian Healy, when he was spent, was replaced ably by Heinke van der Merwe. They used high kicks for the big wing Shane Horgan to chase while Isa Nacewa from full-back occupied the Toulouse midfield with runs off O'Driscoll's inside shoulder. "There's a lot of belief in the team," said Leo Cullen, the Leinster captain whose side are on course for a Magners League semi-final too.
Toulouse will refocus on the chase for the Top 14 title – only once, in 1996, have they done the league-Europe double. As their bus revved up on Saturday evening a group of grim-faced players huddled around assistant coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (the former half-back whose direction the team could have done with, considering three scrum-halves were injured) to watch a re-run on a laptop. Guy Noves, the long-serving head coach, crouched and bent his knees in his designer jeans, demonstrating that, yes, the English referee was quite right to penalise Patricio Albacete for the crazy penalty Toulouse conceded just before half-time.
That gave Jonathan Sexton one of his eight successful kicks out of eight and sent Leinster in with a 16-13 lead. Picamoles' try four minutes into the second half had Toulouse briefly ahead but O'Driscoll's try on 58 minutes and Sexton's last-minute penalty was more than enough for Leinster.
Leinster: Tries Heaslip, O'Driscoll; Conversions Sexton (2); Penalties Sexton (6).
Toulouse: Tries Fritz, O'Driscoll; Conversions Skrela (2); Penalties Skrela, Bezy; Drop-goal Skrela.
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden, 56-67); J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss, 53); C Healy (H van der Merwe, 53), R Strauss, M Ross (S Wright, 73), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin (S Jennings, 53), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Toulouse: C Heymans; V Clerc, F Fritz (Y Jauzion, 60), C Poitrenaud, M Médard; D Skrela (N Bezy, 67), J-M Doussain; J-B Poux (D Human, 45), W Servat (V Lacombe, 77), C Johnston (J Falefa, 67), Y Maestri (G Lamboley, 60), P Albacete, J Bouilhou (capt), Y Nyanga (T Dusautoir, 45), L Picamoles (S Sowerby, 64).
Referee: D Pearson (England).
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