The victory lap of honour was cheered by a rapturous home crowd bathing in the Mediterranean sunshine which had shone down throughout the game. But there was no Jonny Wilkinson to join in the celebrations, he had gone off injured after 28 minutes, and there was certainly no Brian O’Driscoll, who had seen the curtain come down on his European rugby exploits in a second half where Leinster were torn apart.
Wilkinson appeared to aggravate a hamstring injury, which has plagued him in the past, and will go for a scan today. It is likely he will be back in action in a couple of weeks and that would be in time for the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster, which will be staged at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
The Leinster coach, Matt O’Connor, said the result was disappointing not because they lost “but because the performance was disappointing. You can’t make mistakes against a good side away from home. The big lesson is that you need to be at home for a quarter-final.”
Two penalties apiece by half time was meagre fare for a match which had all the ingredients of a final. Between them these teams had lifted the trophy four times in the last five years yet this was their first meeting in the tournament.
Toulon had started with more purpose and fire and Wilkinson’s first of two penalties sailed over with less than five minutes played. But Toulon can be a frustrating side to watch as the error count is consistently high and finishing off moves often relies on the good will of the opposition.
However, conceding 10 points in the first five minutes of the second half put Leinster on the back foot, Toulon building a 16-6 lead.
First, Matt Giteau, who had taken over kicking duties from Wilkinson, struck from close to the halfway line, having missed an earlier effort from a similar range.
The former Wallaby then followed another searing break by hooker Craig Burden. Juanne Smith and Danie Rossouw were stopped short before prop Xavier Chiocci crashed over the line from close range.
The confidence started to grow in a home crowd whose pilou pilou war chant promises they will be ruthless warriors. Jimmy Gopperth clawed back three points but the game turned once Toulon made their passes stick. Rossouw disrupted a Leinster lineout that had been erratic throughout and man of the match Steffon Armitage hacked ahead.
The English No 8 showed tremendous pace to win the foot race and Mathieu Bastareaud crashed through three tackles before Drew Mitchell shrugged off Gordon D’Arcy to score the home side’s second try on 62 minutes.
Giteau converted and Delon Armitage added a penalty from the halfway line as Toulon established a commanding 26-9 lead.
Leinster showed their mettle when they responded with a well-worked try – Jordi Murphy was bundled over from a lineout drive 10 minutes from time. However Gopperth missed the conversion from the touchline and, with Juan Fernandez Lobbe excelling in defence, Toulon remained just out of sight.
The hosts ended the game with 14 men when Florian Fresia was sent to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle on Eoin Reddan yet it was they who had the last word. Rob Kearney’s tackle denied David Smith a score but Giteau followed with his fourth kick to settle the tie in the final minutes.
Scorers: Toulon: Tries Chiocci, Drew; Conversions Giteau (2); Penalties Wilkinson (2), Giteau (2), D Armitage. Leinster: Try Murphy; Pens Gopperth (3)
Toulon: D Armitage; M Drew, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, D Smith; J Wilkinson (capt) (M Mermoz, 28), S Tillous Borde (C Classens, 66); X Chiocci (F Fresia, 60), C Burden (J-C Orioli, 49), C Hayman (M Catsrogiovanni,68), D Rossouw, J Suta, J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe (V Bruni, 68), S Armitage.
Leinster: T Kearney; F McFadden (Z Kirchner, 18), B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Gopperth (I Madigan, 67), E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss (S Cronin, 48), M Ross (M Moore, 60), D Toner (L Cullen, 69), M McCarthy, R Ruddock, S Jennings (J Murphy, 52), J Heaslip (Capt).
Referee: W Barnes (England)