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FEATURE Toulouse must go the distance to slam door on Leinster's five-star tilt

Toulouse must go the distance to slam door on Leinster's five-star tilt
1 month ago

With just under five minutes to play in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup two years ago, Toulouse were handed a penalty that would take them level with Munster. The degree of difficulty put the kick in the gimme category – rather, the issue was whether to take a nibble at three points or look for a bite-sized chunk of seven.

We like to dwell on what are known as clutch moments in sport, when athletes are weighed down with pressure but puff out their chests and deliver. Or wither. They are taught to recognise these junctions as confirmation they are well on the road to success, so embrace them and drive on. But sometimes we skip decisions that frame the picture in the first place. This one was still reverberating a week later.

In the third quarter Toulouse had survived a hairpin-bend scenario when Rory Arnold dumped Simon Zebo on his back, escaping with yellow. They were trailing by seven at the time. Had it been red the French bus was over the side and into the ravine. It would have been a long way down for any rescue attempt.

Rory Arnold
Toulouse survived a yellow card for lock Rory Arnold for a tackle on Munster’s Simon Zebo to prevail in a shootout after extra time (Photo Lorraine O’Sullivan/Getty Images)

So, what to do with this penalty which Thomas Ramos might consider completing with a trick shot? Well, given the near miss with Arnold why not accept the gift, tap it over and pull up alongside Munster with a neck and neck race to the finish?

Our simple credo in these situations is to swap places with the opposition. Whatever they want least becomes most attractive. So offer up the handy points as a sacrifice to Momentum – rugby’s most worshipped god – and go for the bigger prize.

The key piece of intel informing the decision was that Munster had conceded the penalty in question at a scrum. Not just any scrum, but one where the rivets had popped out and the whole screaming structure was dismantled in just over a second.

The bubble over the red heads as referee Luke Pearce marched them back had a simple message: “Please don’t make us pack down again!”

In that semi-final Toulouse looked like they had fetched up to the stadium only to be told by security they were at the wrong gate, and would have to lug their gear to the far side of the ground.

Maybe it got lost in translation. Toulouse took the three points, went on to win that exhausting and enthralling game on a penalty shoot-out after extra time, but lost the Champions Cup there and then. When they came back to Dublin a week later Leinster ran them ragged.

In that semi-final Toulouse looked like they had fetched up to the stadium only to be told by security they were at the wrong gate, and would have to lug their gear to the far side of the ground. They were 20-7 down after 20 minutes.

Last year, at the same stage of the competition, but in different circumstances, they took another hiding on the scoreboard. This time Ugo Mola gambled on a 6-2 split and got caught out when centre Pierre-Louis Barrassi went off injured before the plan could be fully rolled out.

Dan Sheehan
Leinster took control of last year’s semi-final against Toulouse with three first-half tries (Photo Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

The irony was that free-wheeling Toulouse, the team with attack in their DNA, the club that says ‘score as many tries as you want lads because we will score more’, went for brawn and biff and practicality, and still lost.

Why? Because when prop Rodrigue Neti used too much nut in dissuading Josh van der Flier from counter rucking, he ended up in the bin. Like Arnold a year before it was in that swing state of the game – the third quarter – and like Arnold it was yellow when it could have been red. But this time for 10 minutes it tore the backside out a Toulouse pack who looked like they were about to eat into Leinster’s 10-point lead.

The theme in Toulouse this week is that they have zero appetite for opening any more doors for Leinster. The inference is that if they leave them firmly shut, they have too much for a side carrying a mental load. For Europe’s most successful outfit we’re not talking about wholesale changes in approach, rather keeping 15 men on the field and letting them do damage when there is scope for damage to be done. So keep the foot on the gas and have the words No Mercy emblazoned across the front of the bus.

Somewhere in the French psyche is a fear that the madness of the Irish will always manifest itself in a comeback, no matter the scale of the climb, so instead of motoring on they brace themselves for impact.

Critically that would mean going for the throat at the first whimper of weakness. You’d think this would be a given for such a heavyweight outfit, but France showed the same hesitation in Paris two years ago. In front of an adoring crowd, they had Ireland on toast. They were on course to devour them before half-time but ended up stalling, and getting involved in hand to hand combat. Somewhere in the French psyche is a fear that the madness of the Irish will always manifest itself in a comeback, no matter the scale of the climb, so instead of motoring on they brace themselves for impact.

If Toulouse dip into the same script against Leinster they will be doomed to a fourth straight defeat by Ireland’s best. Certainly if they stand off as they did with Harlequins in the third quarter a few weeks ago, they will lose.

Allowing for Quins’ ability to claw their way out of deep graves, why would you stop shoveling the dirt on them? As Toulouse backed off on defence, Quins carried all the harder, delighted with the light-touch application of the home team at the ruck. Watching from Dublin, surely Leo Cullen was checking his balance in the favour bank, and asking for more of the same in the final.

UJ Seuteni
Leinster are aiming to avoid a third straight final defeat, having lost to La Rochelle for the last two years (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

You’d think that account is empty though. Leinster fans were close to losing their lunch as the end-game with Northampton unfolded in slow motion, as befits catastrophic events. Only for some rough butchery by Saints, we were looking at a 21st anniversary re-run of Perpignan’s upset of Leinster at the same venue, in the same competition.

Maybe that was the sign from above, the nod and wink that a choir of guardian angels are word and pitch perfect in getting Leinster on the fifth step: the same European pedestal as Toulouse.

The stress around this is massive. To go 4-4 in victories and defeats from Heineken/Champions Cup finals will be confirmation of failure in Leinster’s make-up, a flaw illustrated by the sequence of four titles from as many finals followed then by four defeats.

In this case the shadow of the World Cup is an interesting extra, provided by the presence of Jacques Nienaber. Who better to draft into your set-up than a Saffer who doesn’t know how to lose?

Leinster continue to look very good with ball in hand and a lot more aggressive without it. There is a seek and destroy element to their defence now.

We were asked recently by someone interested in the power dynamic in Leinster: does the two-time World Cup winner have to fight for space on the training field? Eh, no, he doesn’t. If England’s Lancaster bomber was given the freedom of Dublin 4 not long after England’s World Cup blow-up in 2015, then it would hardly be denied Nienaber.

Lancaster was transformative for a group who had lost their way in the years after Joe Schmidt. So part of his legacy was to leave the South African a machine in very good working order, but struggling for domination in Europe. Along with Andrew Goodman on attack – packing his bags soon for Ireland’s South Africa tour – Leinster continue to look very good with ball in hand and a lot more aggressive without it.

There is a seek and destroy element to their defence now. It was remarkable how Saints survived it, while making twice as many tackles against Leinster’s attack – to be in such good shape on the run-in.

What Leinster lack is a pilot who can make a break as well as join the dots in attack and deliver on his kicking game. Over the two semi-finals in this competition, the difference in speed off the mark between Ross Byrne and Romain Ntamack was night and day.

Romain Ntamack
Romain Ntamack’s brilliant individual try saw Toulouse pip La Rochelle to the Top 14 title last year (Photo Julien de Rosa/Getty Images)

In last year’s Top 14 final, with two minutes left and the Stade Rochelais fans celebrating a first ever title they could almost touch, Toulouse put-in to a scrum in front of their own posts. It took a dozen phases to get within a few metres of their own 10m line. With no happy ending in sight a slight shift from Antoine Dupont put Ntamack on the spot. From that unpromising start he beat three tackles to complete a 60m journey to the La Rochelle line.

It’s not that Ntamack has to deliver this kind of response week in, week out, rather when it’s most needed there’s a decent chance he can pull it off. That’s a shot Ross Byrne doesn’t have in his locker. When you get to finals weekend that’s when it matters.

The best bit about that superhero intervention was that it came a few minutes after they had a penalty to get within one point of La Rochelle, but opted to go for the corner to try and win the game. A turnaround from their thinking against Munster the previous year. Whereupon Ntamack missed the docking station close to the La Rochelle line, and with that his team seemed destined to float in space until the final whistle.

It remains one of the most remarkable finishes to a major competition in the modern game. It was only after your heart stopped aching for La Rochelle that you began to admire the pedigree of Toulouse for that’s what kept this dog in the fight.

Chances are Saturday’s final will have Leinster and Toulouse taking lumps out of each other for every inch en route to the finishing tape. Leinster will long for some room to spare if that’s the case. If they are to get the job done, they need the last five minutes to be a lap of honour. If not then Europe’s front runners will back themselves for another gold medal.

Comments

4 Comments
N
Nick 32 days ago

Good to hear your vocie again Bren!

J
J Marc 32 days ago

“Josh Van der Flier counter rucking” , What a farce!! JVDF came, twice,running from 10 meters giving headbutts in Neti's ribs, without any chance of even seeing the Ball, witch was 5 or 6 meters beyond. So maybe Neti should have seen red, but JFVD should have seen the same card at the very same time.

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