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

With less than five minutes left in a European Champions Cup quarter-final two years ago, Toulouse were awarded a penalty that would have drawn them level with Munster. The degree of difficulty puts the kick in the “give” category – instead, the issue was whether to take a bite of a three-point or go for a bite-sized piece of a seven-point.

We like to focus on what are known as clutch moments in sports, when athletes are overwhelmed with pressure but puff out their chests and deliver. Or wither. They've been taught to recognize these intersections as confirmation that they're on the right path to success, so embrace it and keep driving. But sometimes we skip the decisions that frame the picture in the first place. This was still echoing a week later.

In the third quarter, Toulouse survived a hairpin scenario when Rory Arnold threw Simon Zebo onto his back, and escaped with a yellow. They were seven behind at the time. If the color had been red, the French bus would have been on the side and into the valley. It would have been a long road ahead for any rescue attempt.

Toulouse survived a yellow card for lock Rory Arnold for a challenge on Munster's Simon Zebo to prevail in a penalty shootout after extra time (Photo by Lauren O'Sullivan/Getty Images)

So what to do with this penalty that Tomas Ramos might consider completing with a trick shot? Well, given the impending failure with Arnold, why not accept the gift, then press it and pull alongside Munster in a neck-and-neck race to the finish?

Our simple doctrine in these situations is to exchange places with the opponent. All they want is at least it becomes more attractive. So offer up the useful points as a sacrifice to Momentum – rugby's most worshiped god – and claim the biggest prize.

The key piece of information informing the decision was that Munster had conceded the penalty in question at a rally. Not just any scrum, but where the spikes popped out and the entire scrum was dismantled in just over a second.

The bubble above the red heads when referee Luke Pearce sent them back contained a simple message: “Please don't make us pack again!”

In the semi-final, Toulouse appeared to arrive at the stadium only to be told by security that they had arrived at the wrong gate and would have to carry their equipment to the far side of the ground.

Maybe it got lost in translation. Toulouse took all three points, then went on to win that grueling and exciting match on penalties after extra time, but lost the Champions Cup there. When they returned to Dublin a week later, Leinster shocked them.

In the semi-final, Toulouse appeared to arrive at the stadium only to be told by security that they had arrived at the wrong gate and would have to carry their equipment to the far side of the ground. They were down 20-7 after 20 minutes.

Last year, at the same stage of the competition, but in different conditions, they again hid on the scoreboard. This time Ugo Mola bet on a 6-2 result and Pierre-Louis Barassi was taken off injured before the plan could be fully implemented.

Dan Sheehan
Leinster dominated last year's semi-final against Toulouse with three tries in the first half (Photo by Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

The irony is that Toulouse, a team with attacking in their DNA, a club that says 'Score as many players as you want because we'll score more', went for power, strength and practicality, and yet lost.

Why? Because when prop Rodrigue Niete used too much madness to dissuade Josh van der Vlier on the counter, he ended up in the trash. Like Arnold a year ago, he 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 they tore the backside of a Toulouse pack that looked as if they were about to eat away at Leinster's 10-point lead.

The theme in Toulouse this week is that they have no desire to open any more doors to Leinster. The conclusion is that if they leave it tightly closed, they will have too much for a side that carries a mental load. For the most successful club in Europe, we're not talking about wholesale changes in approach, we're talking about keeping 15 men on the field and letting them do damage when there is room to do damage. So keep your foot on the accelerator and write “No Mercy” on the front of the bus.

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

It is important that this means heading towards the throat at the first complaint of weakness. You might think this is normal for such a heavyweight team, but France showed the same hesitation in Paris two years ago. In front of a crowd of fans, they toasted Ireland. They were going to devour them before halftime but ended up stalling and getting involved in a fistfight. Somewhere in the French psyche there is a fear that the madness of the Irish will always manifest itself on the comeback, no matter how big the climb, so instead of leading, they brace for impact.

If Toulouse fall back on the same scenario against Leinster, they will be doomed to a fourth successive defeat against the best Irish teams. Certainly if they hold out like they did to Harlequins in the third quarter a few weeks ago, they will lose.

Given that Queens can claw their way out of deep graves, why stop shoveling dirt over them? As Toulouse fell behind in defence, Queens played more aggressively, happy with the home team's light application up the pitch. Watching from Dublin, Leo Cullen must have been checking his Services Bank balance, ordering more of the same for the final.

U. G. Ciutini
Leinster are aiming to avoid a third successive final defeat, having lost to La Rochelle in the last two years (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

You may think this account is empty though. Leinster fans were on the verge of losing their lunch as the end of the match with Northampton appeared in slow motion, befitting the cataclysmic events. Just for some cruel massacres committed by the Saints, we were looking at No. 21street Anniversary replay of Perpignan's upset of Leinster at the same venue and in the same competition.

Perhaps it was the sign from above, the nudge and wink that a chorus of guardian angels were mastering the word and the notes in Leinster's fifth-step position: the same European rule as Toulouse.

The pressure around this is enormous. A 4-4 succession of victories and defeats in Heineken Cup/Champions Cup finals would be confirmation of the failure in the Leinster line-up, a flaw evident by the sequence of four titles from as many finals followed by four defeats.

In this case, the World Cup shadow is an interesting addition, thanks to the presence of Jack Nienaber. Who better to be involved in your preparation than Safer who doesn't know how to lose?

Leinster continue to look very good with the ball in hand and more aggressive without it. There's a search-and-destroy element to their defense now.

We recently asked someone interested in the power dynamic at Leinster: Will the two-time World Cup winner have to fight for space on the training pitch? Eh, no, it doesn't. If the England Lancaster striker was given the freedom of Dublin 4 shortly after England's bombing at the 2015 World Cup, it is difficult to deny Nienaber that.

Lancaster marked a turning point for a group that had lost its way in the years following Joe Schmidt. So part of his legacy was to leave South Africa a machine in very good working order, but struggling for dominance in Europe. Combined with Andrew Goodman in attack – who will soon be packing his bags for Ireland's tour of South Africa – Leinster continue to look extremely good with the ball in hand and even more aggressive without it.

There's a search-and-destroy element to their defense now. It was remarkable how Saints survived that, while making twice as many tackles against the Leinster attack – to be in good shape on the run.

What Leinster lack is a flyer who can break as well as join the points in attack and execute his own kicking game. Over the course of the two semi-finals in this competition, the difference in pace between Ross Byrne and Roman Ntamack was night and day.

Roman Ntamack
Romain Ntamack's brilliant solo effort saw Toulouse beat La Rochelle to last year's Top 14 title (Photo by Julian De Rosa/Getty Images)

In last year's Top 14 final, with two minutes left and Stade Rochelais fans celebrating the first ever title they could almost touch, Toulouse rallied in front of their pillars. It took them twelve phases to get within a few meters of their 10-meter line. With no happy ending in sight, a slight shift from Antoine Dupont put Ntamack in a difficult position. From that unpromising start, he overcame three tackles to complete a 60-metre journey to the La Rochelle line.

It's not that Ntamack has to provide this kind of response week after week, but rather when it's needed most, there's a good chance he'll get it done. This is a shot Ross Byrne doesn't have in his closet. When you get to the finals on the weekend, that's the big time.

The best part about the Super Champions' intervention was that it came just minutes after they had been awarded a penalty to put them within one point of La Rochelle, but they elected to take a corner kick to try and win the game. A shift from their thinking against Munster the previous year. Then Ntamack missed the docking station near the La Rochelle line, and thus it seemed that his team would float in space until the final whistle.

It remains one of the most notable finishes in a major competition in the modern game. Only after your heart stopped aching for La Rochelle did you begin to admire Toulouse's lineage because that was what kept this dog in the fight.

Saturday's final will likely see Leinster and Toulouse squeezing blocks out of each other for every inch on their way to the final bar. Leinster will be longing for some space to spare if that is the case. If they want to get the job done, they need the last five minutes to be a round of honour. If not, Europe's top runners will be backing themselves for another gold medal.


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