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Four Leinster talking points after latest Champions Cup final loss

By Liam Heagney
Dan Sheehan goes on a run in Leinster's latest cup final loss (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The upside of being stuck on a brutally delayed Avanti train out of Euston that didn’t want to go anywhere fast on Saturday evening was that it provided ample time to reflect on the howitzer of a final that had unfolded at Tottenham, the first that had gone to extra time since 2005 when Toulouse were also the winners (beating Stade Francais in Edinburgh).

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It was an undeniably cruel outcome for Leinster, who keep thinking up new ways to lose these Champions Cup finals agonisingly. They had previously messed up by leading from the front for long periods of the 2022 and 2023 deciders against La Rochelle.

Against Toulouse in 2024, though, it was quite the opposite as they initially trailed for 42 minutes before pulling level at 9-all seven minutes into the second half.

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Two further seven-minute spells in arrears followed before the exhausting battle finished in a normal time draw after sub Ciaran Frawley narrowly missed with his glory-seeking drop goal.

Then came the leeway they could never fully recover, the 10 points given up with James Lowe yellow-carded. They gave it a blast, cutting the gap to three after Rory Arnold’s red card.

Attack

259
Passes
134
184
Ball Carries
113
434m
Post Contact Metres
218m
5
Line Breaks
5

However, the one-man advantage they had for the whole second period of extra time was an illusion as they rapidly tired and lost that part of the final 0-6, consigning them to a wounding 31-22 defeat. Here are four RugbyPass talking points that sprang to mind on the slow train out of London:

The part of the game that really let Leinster down
Skipper Caelan Doris curiously claimed in the aftermath that the on-pitch belief they had that they could beat Toulouse stemmed from the ability of their attack, not the fact they were putting the French side through so many more tackles.

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The RugbyPass match centre stats counted that Leinster attempted 151 compared to Toulouse’s 261, a huge difference of 110, but the back-rower emphasised his team’s creativity more.

“I don’t think the belief came specifically from the fact they were making a lot of tackles,” he said when asked if he felt at some point the number of tackles Toulouse were having to make would take a toll on them.

“I think we back our attack massively in general. Even in a short space of time we believe we can score tries if all 15 of us are doing our roles and in any phase of play we think we can go through, so the belief was right there until that last play really.”

Here’s the rub, though: The Leinster strategy under Leo Cullen/Jacques Nienaber is different from the Cullen/Stuart Lancaster partnership.

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It was Brian O’Driscoll who highlighted to RugbyPass in midweek how the province’s attack isn’t as polished since the greater emphasis was placed on the defence and on being more physical following the arrival of the World Cup-winning senior coach.

“I don’t think that the attack game has quite been as sharp as it has the last two years,” hinted the legendary BOD. “I just don’t think the time and energy and effort has probably gone into scrutinising the quality of passing, the lines of running, all of that because the defence has taken such a focus. It’s still good. It’s just not quite as sharp as it was in previous years.”

His observation was on the money. How many times in Saturday’s first half did Leinster sloppily spill the ball in the opposition’s 22 or lose their shape and tempo in attack? Too many times to really hurt Toulouse.

Whereas for years they have oozed tries, they were restricted to just one in 100 minutes at Spurs with their passing not perfect and their lines of running failing to stretch and buckle the opposition. That’s the side of their game that really let them down.

Don’t blame Frawley but questions must be asked of Byrne
The 80th minute at Tottenham is a moment that will haunt Frawley. He looked every inch the potential hero when stroking over the penalty off a scrum collapse to drag Leinster level at 15-all with the clock at about 77:40.

Less than two minutes later, with time having ticked onto 79:21, he had the ball again and was gunning for glory, striking the drop goal that would surely have been the matchwinner if it didn’t veer left of the target.

He had no opposition chaser off-puttingly breathing down his neck, such was the length of the sweet pass he received from Jamison Gibson-Park, and his missed effort was reminiscent of the last time that Leinster wound up playing extra time in Europe.

That was 2015 when Jimmy Gopperth fired off an 80th-minute drop goal attempt to try and dethrone the cup holders Toulon in the semi-finals. That kick – in a 12-all normal time, penalties-only deadlock similar to the 15-all normal time tie nine years later – was also narrowly wide.

Toulon made an unmatchable gallop in extra time that afternoon in Marseille, winning 25-20, and it was similar at Tottenham with Toulouse finding that decisive extra gear in the extra 20 minutes.

Gopperth went on to great things despite that high-profile miss, starring in England for Wasps and Leicester before recently making a milestone 500th first-class game appearance for Provence a month before his 42nd birthday.

The point is that Saturday’s last-gasp miss shouldn’t break Frawley and if there is a blame to be apportioned, it should rest on Leinster’s earlier reticence not to kick penalties at the posts.

Too many times they went for the corner in the belief their maul could engineer tries when that facet of play didn’t deliver and cost them heavily in the finish.

With the football pitch at Tottenham very compact compared to the dimensions at dedicated rugby grounds, Ross Byrne should have been more demanding to Doris and sub James Ryan that he be allowed to fire kicks towards the posts from all areas.

Toulouse’s conversion of eight from nine penalty attempts compared to Leinster’s five from five was a vivid reminder that you take your points when on offer in cup rugby and not gamble away these opportunities by chasing tries.

Cullen did reference the tight pitch in his post-mortem, but only to commend Toulouse’s accuracy and not bemoan his team for shunning the tee for kicks to touch.

“Due to the nature of the pitch, when you gave away a penalty around the halfway line because the pitch is only 95 metres in length, then all the goalkickers come into range. It’s a credit to them. They were a little more clinical taking some of their options and some of them were off the tee.”

Fan experience far from perfect
The tightly confined way the stadium at Tottenham is built meant that the view was excellent from all vantage points around the ground. The sense of fans being on top of the action and so close to the play only added to the immense spectacle, but the experience ultimately was far from perfect.

Referee Matthew Carley spent a huge chunk of time in consultation with his TMO, starting with the spectacular Gibson-Park denial of Antoine Dupont less than two minutes into the match and featuring numerous other incidents through to the extraordinarily lengthy review of the eventually awarded Josh van der Flier try just before half-time in extra time.

Now, debating the merits of the decisions reached by Carley and co isn’t something RugbyPass can indulge in given this website’s affiliation with World Rugby, but what can be said is that the fan experience surrounding these decisions is diabolical.

Saturday’s big-match tickets weren’t cheap, yet the fans were left in the dark about Carley’s decisions due to the policy of not giving him an in-stadium voice. Why can’t his deliberations be explained as happens in American football where the referee is connected to the stadium PA?

There is something wrong with the game when the fee-paying fans at the ground have to text pals who are watching on TV to get a clarification on why decisions have been made in a certain way as the broadcasters have access to the ref mic.

This is a situation that must be resolved sooner rather than later. Even Leinster coach Cullen pleaded ignorance when asked why the Lowe try was chalked off just before half-time.

“We were coming down so I was on the sideline at that point and it was quite hard to see was there a knock on,” he said when asked if he had an insight as to why the score didn’t stand.

“There were a few things in the game I’m not sure about just in terms of I haven’t seen footage back. That’s what I mean, there are so many calls within the game. Listen, it’s not like I’m looking at tape there in the last few minutes (before doing post-match media).”

The hot Leinster take on their serial failure
A hat-trick of successive cup final losses is a bitter ordeal for Leinster to deal with but their critics must realise that Cullen’s players would rather put up with this challenge than not be in these showpiece deciders.

The Irish team’s head coach likes to ramble at his post-game debriefs and his initial answer on Saturday was in keeping with this tendency, speaking non-stop for only seconds short of the three-minute mark.

One particular reference in this monologue piqued the interest. Cullen went down in history as the captain who led Leinster to three titles in four years in 2009, 2011, and 2012, but what age was he when he first lifted the trophy? Thirty-one.

Using that age as a guide, it suggests that Doris and Ryan, who were present on either side of the coach at the media briefing, have plenty more attempts ahead to become Champions Cup winners and smash their current finals losing streak.

“The two lads on either side of me, two great men, both young men, 25 and 27. As someone who was a player once upon a time, it took a while to get to that point (becoming a champion),” Cullen ventured.

“So for the two lads, particularly as leaders of the group right now, I’ll say it to you guys and I’ll say the same to them, we [Leinster] were bashing away in his competition for a long time if you remember when we weren’t getting to finals, so we had a different level of disappointment.

“It’s not like there is a lack of belief that we can actually go and do this. There is a belief that we can do this, so it’s just making sure that we stick at it because I think once they get across the line, and they have every confidence they will as a group, these two guys will be spearheading that challenge for many years to come.”

Ryan endorsed this sentiment before the media proceedings drew to a close. “What we said in the changing room was that when you do want great things and you want to achieve great things, you always run the risk of failing as well.

“Would I rather be in a team that tries to be the best team in Europe every year and risk feeling like that? I still would. That’s part of trying to do special things, you run the risk of feeling like this.

“But that’s the way we are, we want to win trophies and there is more hurt. But, as Leo said, we have just got to bounce back. That’s the way it is…”

By the sounds of that, there is every chance we will likely see Leinster in the 2025 decider in Cardiff.

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Comments

23 Comments
R
Rory 25 days ago

Strange how the word “chokers” has not been mentioned by the scribblers of Rugbyparse.

T
Toby_Lerone 27 days ago

I think one thing that is overlooked is the input of Nienabar as generally speaking I don’t think he has added anything to the squad from what Lancaster has done. If he was as good as people say he wouldn’t have needed rassie to help with coaching (Given he was DoR not assistant coach). This was evident during the World Cup especially in semi final, rassie was making the big calls on tactics.

In addition, and this could be debatable, but Leinster were pretty strung up start of season on never beating La Rochelle, that they may have put all their mental energy beating them in group stages and QF, as their performance against Northampton at Crome park was not as good in comparison.

T
Turlough 27 days ago

First of all: hats off to Toulouse an outstanding performance. Duponts kicking was phenomenal. Twice he challenged Keenan with amazing clearances from his 22 in extra time. Result was territory deep in Leinster half in the early part of extra time which lead to 2 penalties and the game. Remember also his two 50:22s?
Now to Willis/Dupont. ANY slight isolation by a Leinster player resulted in a turnover penalty. How many turnovers in the Toulouse 22?
Leinster’s defense was immense, they had opportunities in attack but they honestly looked like they had not spent enough time passing the ball in the training in the weeks preceding the final.
Game management was poor. Toulouse’s scrum had crumbled. At 15-15 Leinster had a scrum advantage in a position that would be kickable for a scrum penalty. Leinster played on and missed a long range drop goal. You MUST take the scrum surely? Win penalty and its a shot at goal to win with time up. No penalty and you can attack and drop goal whatever.
The distance from sideline penalties from Byrne was shocking. If you are kicking the line you must get close to that 5 metre line. How many times were Leinster forced to maul from 10-15 metres? Toulouse KNEW Leinster was going to kick and maul and clearly spent considerable training time neutralizing thuis threat. The maul was starting too far out, Toulouse were able to stop the heart of the drive. You must change tack and start kicking for goals.
That said it always felt like Toulouse were the potent team on the day with Leinster under pressure and chasing. Even with their backline completely disrupted, Toulouse found a way. 9 Wins in their last 9 finals. Leinster will be there next year. But so will Toulouse/Northhampton etc. A great era of club rugby.

B
Barry 27 days ago

Fine margins and a superb game. Leinster had Sexton in all 4 previous triumphs. Just lacked a game breaker to nick it. Fair play to Toulouse

C
Craig 28 days ago

You can only coach so much the rest is raw talent.
Sometimes overdoing running the ball wide is a problem

J
Jon 28 days ago

Have to agree with points/factors that are raised, just that..

repost

That was a terrible performance by the officials, that game took forever to finish.

You still might put a few of Leinsters brain fades down to exhaustion during overtime however, what was Keenan thinking taking the ball out in touch and then soon after letting Dupont find touch. Possibly put Larmour’s explosion in that category giving away the try?

Also making a farce of the substation laws not being able to get someone on immediately (re an extra man down while Frawley was looked at), especially with the fact it couldn’t have been with who he replaced. While multiple ST starters came back on in extratime.

Wait this article is not really about the game? Oh well, fitting of a final even if you really have no idea who the best team was from it. Can sure say Leinster are kings in Europe though, most consistent is what really matters. They’ll really have to find something once they lose JGP, Lowe, and Henshaw though, teams full of amazing players but those three are instrumental to the team (well maybe not if JN changes their style even more).
added to that, stats
18 Turnovers Lost 16
15 Penalties Conceded 16
You don’t think they might have it easier in the Top 14? Less competition than in URC and far less travel, more subs so less recent workload? Toulouse definitely seemed to last better, Nienaber’s style not conducive to high profile games?

Having a chance in games like that comes down to something special. Both 9’s are out of this world, yet it wouldn’t be far fetched to say JGP is more important to Leinster. Henshaw running was the one constant threat in a very static backline, that man just oozes class. As does Lowe, the most supreme winger at recycling ball is so influential to the way they (used to?) play, from side to side. Their forwards battle amazingly well as a team but I can’t see them winning titles with that.

I’ve read comments that Neinaber needs explosive power backs to perform his D structure, I’m not sure an Irish team is the best fit for him if that’s the case. Would recommend moving on from him after another year of (hopefully by then) embedding some counter philosophies. Would still give Leinster a more depth to possible game plans but allow for a more flexible coach to come in and just do what’s best for Leinster.

Would love to see those two teams replay this final without all the rest break stoppages and wasted clock/ball in play time.

m
mjp89 28 days ago

Not to get all soccer about it but you have to ask if Leo is the right man for the job now.

Twice in a row he's cast the URC aside to win Europe, and given the run to the final this year it wouldn't surprise me to see Leinster fail to win the URC again this season.

Three seasons without a trophy is an unacceptable return for what is basically the Irish national team. Have Jacques take the top job and see what he can do.

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