European Rugby Champions Cup: Toulon 24 – 9 Leinster

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A trip to Toulon, the aristocrats of European Rugby and a side smarting from a surprisingly comprehensive defeat to Wasps in the previous round was not what Leinster required. Hawkeye Sidekicks watched the contest and ponders if it was an opportunity lost for Leinster on a day when indiscipline and lack of game management cost them dear.

Leo Cullen thrust into the Leinster head coaching role sooner than expected will review this part of the European campaign with great regret. The squad at his disposal was more than capable of accounting for Wasps and Bath in the first two group phrase outings. However, an underwhelming home loss to Wasps set the tone for this tournament for Leinster and today’s reversal had traits of the issues which surfaced in the first two opening games of this pool.

It had started so well for Leinster at an overcast Toulon. A dominant first nine minutes in the opening period yielded two Sexton penalties and Toulon were struggling to get a foothold in the game. Leinster’s scrum was solid and the pack was abrasive in those early exchanges. This early confidence was perhaps to their downfall as the Leinster pack decided to contest a Toulon lineout deep in their own territory. The decision resulted in the Toulon pack mauling unceremoniously to the try line as Steffon Armitage emerged with the ball. It was as devastating a response as Leinster could have envisaged and it set the tone for the rest of the game.

Leinster were now struggling to win clean ball at the breakdown as Gorgodze and Armitage were providing a lesson in abrasive competitive work around the fringes. Van den Flier learned more today than he will ever learn in the Guinness Pro 12 this season, to be exposed in that environment will only help this emerging talent and the youngster could not be faulted given the circumstances. If that was not enough, Duane Vermuelen came to the party with several typically hard running lines which tested Leinster’s half-back tackling. Toulon’s embarrassing options were making an impact on the game if not on the scoreboard.

Perhaps, this is why Cian Healy decided to take the law into his own hands when he dumped Toulon hooker Girado in the ruck midway through the first half. Nigel Owens paused and gave the yellow card, indiscipline which Leinster could really ill afford but the Irish province survived the player absence with determined defense and some poor handling from Toulon in advanced positions. Toulon’s scrum was getting its act together but the lineout was a source of woe particularly in that opening forty minutes as Toner and McCarthy started to pinch home lineout ball.

The half-time interval was 10-9 to Toulon. Leinster went into the dressing room knowing that they had battled bravely to contend Toulon’s power house brand of rugby. Leo Cullen and management also hoped that their star out-half Sexton could improve from open play which lacked authority. His kicking from hand was inconsistent, his passing to launch his back line was missing intended targets. Perhaps, the early hit from Nonu was effecting the mercurial play maker?

However, the second half upturn required from Sexton never materialized as Toulon made the necessary adjustments to stifle Sexton even more with Bastareaud and Nonu now pressurizing Sexton’s attempts to kick deep into touch. The indiscipline stakes were not much better as Devin Toner then was forced to spend ten minutes immediately after the restart. Two experienced Ireland internationals receiving yellow cards is not what Leinster management required and the game was now ebbing away.

Toulon scrum-half Escande continued to be accurate from his penalty attempts as Leinster continued to leak penalties deep in their own territory. This was the tone for the majority of the game as to be honest, Leinster can have little complaints on the penalty count which was predominantly offside which showed Leinster’s eagerness to close space for Toulon to work with. Armitage concluded the scoring as Leinster minus third sin bin recipient Tom Denton crashed over after another emphatic maul.

Leinster could not be faulted for effort. All the players in blue ran themselves into the ground with Rhys Ruddock putting in a colossal effort in tackle count and ball carrying. The problems unfortunately were at ten where Sexton was tormented by Toulon throughout. The game management was not sharp enough as several kicks went out dead. Sexton’s body language spoke of a player bereft of how to shake the errors from his play. The Leinster back line were starved of quality possession to test Toulon’s defense but in fairness when you are trying to beat players such as Bastareaud, Nonu, Mitchell, Habana and Armitage enough said.

What does Leo Cullen do next weekend? The tournament is over, several marquee players are not performing to the levels required. Sexton and Heaslip were anonymous throughout. Jordi Murphy and Tadhg Furlong deemed good enough for Joe Schmidt are not regularly starting with their provinces, something is a miss. Toulon were poor by their own standards, poor handling, the set piece from the pack had issues throughout. I suspect that those issues will be rectified which would hint that Leo Cullen may have to think very carefully about putting fringe players to face this monster at the Aviva.

Munster and Leinster showed today how far down the pecking order both sides are from the top table of European Rugby. A sign of things to come. Madigan’s minor role today proves that the player needs to head to pastures new even though Sexton is playing far from his best. IRFU need to reflect and take the corrective action required; get the professional players playing week in week out and results will start to improve for both country and provinces. In Ulster and Connacht, we now trust for European glory.