Skrela and the Toulouse pack punish Leinster
Toulouse 26 Leinster 16
"Mayday, mayday" – the cry of distress reverberated through Leinster's ranks in sodden Toulouse on the first day of May. Not even a frantic afternoon of scrambling defence could keep the Heineken Cup in the Dubliners' hands. Toulouse reached the final by means of superior forward power and they also had the greater power in the loose, setting up decisive second-half tries for two backs, Yannick Jauzion and David Skrela.
Skrela finished with 21 points and was man of the match. But it was the Toulouse pack who won the game. Insufficient scrummaging power under-mined Ireland's Six Nations this year, especially against France in Paris. One wonders whether a similar story might unfold when Biarritz play Munster in San Sebastian this afternoon.
A mayday call would have been appropriate before kick-off, given the soaked pitch and lashing rain that greeted the teams as they came out to warm up. The Australia flanker Rocky Elsom powered Leinster to the Heineken title last year and his fearsome driving of the loose ball would have been invaluable in such conditions. He, however, is back Down Under, and in his absence Leinster's indiscipline cost them dear. Careless offsides around the fringes of rucks handed Skrela two early penalties.
Toulouse were thus 6-0 up when a massive effort from their scrum and Byron Kelleher's kick cost Leinster 40 metres. A swinging arm by the prop Stan Wright soon after cost the champions another 40m. These were expensive foibles, particularly when the scrum-half Eoin Reddan lost the ball on the Toulouse line in a tackle from Kelleher. The fly-half Shaun Berne's inaccurate kicking in open play showed how much Leinster missed the injured Jonathan Sexton.
Leinster pushed back into the game and tested Toulouse but they were fighting against not just the superior forward power of their opponents but also a fiercely partisan crowd. European Rugby Cup insists that its semi-finals should not be played on neutral territory. Such a policy remains a mystery to most.
However, Leinster made far too many mistakes to expect to win a Heineken semi-final wherever it was played and Toulouse were simply the better team. They led 9-0 within the half-hour, thanks to another Skrela penalty. Extraordinarily, Leinster had clawed that back to 9-9 within three minutes of the start of the second half, Berne having kicked two penalties and the full-back Rob Kearney another.
Unfortunately for Leinster, the team who upped the ante from there on was Toulouse. The wing Isa Nacewa missed an important tackle as the French side attacked hard down the right, and although Shane Horgan managed to cut down Vincent Clerc, the Toulouse forwards recycled loose ball three times and eventually the centre Jauzion forced his way over the Leinster line for the game's first try. Skrela converted.
Leinster had to score next but instead Skrela, using fast, second-phase possession, put the match beyond them with a slashing midfield break which took him over under the posts. His conversion made it 23-9. The industrious No 8 Jamie Heaslip gave Leinster a glimmer of hope with a 64th-minute try in the left corner, after Brian O'Driscoll had freed Gordon D'Arcy and Reddan down the middle with a neat chip. Berne converted from the touchline. But Skrela then closed the door with his fourth penalty, 11 minutes from the end.
Toulouse's forwards will ensure that Biarritz or Munster will have to play extremely well in the final, at the Stade de France in Paris on 22 May, to deny Guy Noves's men their reward.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans (M Médard, 40); D Skrela (J-B Elissalde, 73), B Kelleher; D Human (Y Montes, 71), W Servat (V Lacombe, 74), B Lecouls (J-B Poux, 44), R Millo-Chluski (Y Maestri, 55), P Albacete, J Bouilhou, S Sowerby (L Picamoles, 72), T Dusautoir (capt).
Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan; B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; C Healy (CJ van der Linde, 30), J Fogerty, S Wright (Healy, 56), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin (M O'Kelly, 65), J Heaslip, S Jennings (S Keogh, 51).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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