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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

James Lowe at the double in Leinster’s Champions Cup demolition of Toulouse | Champions Cup

Penalty joy for Toulouse in Dublin last week but little more than punishment seven days on. Leinster produced one of the most emphatic performances in recent European history to sink the defending champions and reach a sixth final.

It was every bit as dominant as the scoreline suggests and while the Aviva Stadium was a sea of blue, having been painted Munster red seven days ago, it might as well have been green. Leinster are a Test side in all but name.

They lined up with 13 Ireland internationals in their starting XV and the same number of players in their 23 who featured against France in Paris this year. Toulouse do not exactly lack Test players themselves but for all their counterattacking threats, and their star man at scrum-half in Antoine Dupont, they simply could not live with Leinster’s power and poise.

Leinster scored four tries, two coming from James Lowe who is now one behind Chris Ashton’s season record of 11. They were destructive at the breakdown, swarming with the intent that the recent champions sides of Saracens used to, and with Josh van der Flier further enhancing his reputation as one of the finest opensides around. But above all else there was a slickness to Leinster’s play Toulouse could not handle.

Johnny Sexton enjoyed the kind of afternoon a fly-half of his calibre should have with his side enjoying so much quick ball. Indeed, he was far from alone in showcasing his skills but whether it be flat passes to the oncoming Garry Ringrose or pinpoint crossfield kicks to his back three, his was a supreme showing.

It was swiftly followed by a determination to ensure that they make amends for their 2019 final defeat by Saracens. “I never thought that I’d get another chance, so that’s great and we’re so driven to put a fifth star on the jersey,” said the 36-year-old. “We’ve got to a final but that’s not where we set our aspirations.”

All things considered it was the sort of performance that will resonate all the way to Lens, where Racing 92 face La Rochelle on Sunday for the right to face Leinster in the final.

It remains to be seen whether Tadhg Furlong will be fit for that match, the Ireland tighthead prop limping off after 17 minutes having already demonstrated his delightful dexterity with some lovely short passes and a spectacular long-range ball to Hugo Keenan on the left.

Keenan then darted his way into the Toulouse 22 but Jamison Gibson-Park’s grubber was seized upon by Dupont, who found himself with a clear run to the try-line. If it was a reminder of the dangers Toulouse pose, it was also a wake-up call for Leinster, who responded with tries from Lowe and Van der Flier before half-time.

Hugo Keenan of Leinster celebrates after scoring his side’s fourth try during the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Hugo Keenan touches down Leinster’s fourth try. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Furlong’s departure did give Toulouse the ascendancy at the scrum and with it a foothold but they were unable to add to the scoreboard beyond a Tomas Ramos penalty. Dupont flickered in glimpses but a prolonged period before half-time when Toulouse went through phase after phase around halfway before a wayward pass, which went straight into touch, summed up their opening half. Emmanuel Meafou was in the sin-bin by this stage, his frustration evidently getting the better of him.

Toulouse’s luck was still out after the restart – Jack Conan was fortunate to escape a yellow card for a trip on Romain Ntamack – but if they feel they did not get their share of the decisions from the referee, Karl Dickson, it was not the reason why they lost.

Lowe’s second try came with half an hour still to play – a walkover effort after Sexton’s long pass – and while Toulouse responded with a close-range try from a driving maul through Selevasio Tolofua the game was long since up for them. Keenan’s late try – just deserts for his performances – put the exclamation mark on Leinster’s dominance.

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In Toulouse’s defence, and as Sexton pointed out, they played 100 minutes against Munster, returned home and back to Dublin again so perhaps it is little surprise that the petrol light was flashing at times. The head coach, Ugo Mola, was magnanimous in defeat but conceded the French domestic league does not set Toulouse up for European success in the same way Leinster are.

“If I take the average [number of games this season] from the Irish players and for the French players, it’s maybe double,” he said. “Honestly, I think this is the best competition, but the Top 14 does not prepare us for this competition.”

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