Leinster reach Champions Cup decider with as much grace as grunt

A shadowy wall from the west stand cutting Aviva’s turf down the middle from end to end and Toulouse could have convinced themselves they were playing in the French southwest.

Before the start of the game, a poll of short-sleeved coffee and beer drinkers had, after the previous weekend of Leicester and Munster, drawn an undercooked Leinster against an overcooked Toulouse.

These choices might have been half good and had some bearing, as Leo Cullen always saw the names of players falling through the air ready to get into position according to his algorithm of exhaustion, form, freshness and wound.

But the conclusion after Toulouse was far from speculation and something Cullen never quite understood after a first half in which Leinster were virtually unplayable. His team was ready to cook.

The scene froze. A group of Toulouse players emptied with their hands on their knees, with Meafou shaking his head and on the wing and winger Juan Cruz Mallia lying on his back

Even Jamison Gibson-Park’s blocked digger in the 7th minute for Antoine Dupont’s strike almost the full length of the pitch for Toulouse’s first try against the run of play and Leinster did not break stride.

This strike and the latent threat from the European champions could have shaken other teams. But against the backdrop of the Leinster backlash it sparked, Dupont’s cheekiness was reduced to a cameo of little consequence.

The feeling was that Leinster were in tear mode, their threatening and menacing mood not lost on the solid bench of blue in the East Stand which curled behind both goals with barely a seam of Toulouse red.

With Sexton sending in James Lowe and Josh van der Flier for first half tries, the home side might have wondered why at 23-10 at half time they were only 13 points clear as, apart from Dupont, Toulouse had not played in the Leinster half for most of the first half.

But the second guess was not in the narrative and within 10 minutes of the second half Leinster were pouring onto the pitch again, sucking the Toulouse players under the posts for Lowe to wander down the wide left again.

There was a moment in the second half when the Leinster left winger drilled a low kick straight down the line. Toulouse rushed to cover, collected the ball and passed it to Emmanuel Meafou, who fumbled inside his 22.

The scene froze. A group of Toulouse players gutted with their hands on their knees, Meafou shaking his head and on the wing and winger Juan Cruz Mallia lying flat on his back being treated for a cramp. Their match summarized.

Then Johnny Sexton’s mine, orchestrator of tempo, position and game, was considered and grateful for the team’s performance. Occasionally he would light up the room, but as always his mind, even in celebratory mode, never strayed from the primary focus.

“We now have a final, but that’s not where we defined our aspirations,” he said.

More at ease, he turned to congratulate his players from Robbie Henshaw rising from his sickbed to Lowe’s endless enthusiasm for the game and Gibson-Park’s floating presence around the pitch whipping Leinster in fast and slow rhythms.

Cullen was also comfortable staying in the present. He drew on his last playing experience in final destination Marseille in a game nearly a decade ago.

Matthis Lebel from Toulouse shot down at the Aviva. Photography: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“We were there in the semi-finals. We don’t have a lot of players that are still there that day,” Cullen said. “Jonathan was never there. He was out at the time,” he added, glancing mischievously at his captain. Sexton had the grace of a wry smile about his two-year stint from 2013 with Racing.

“But there are moments from that day and that weekend that stick in my memory for a lot of the wrong reasons.

“In Europe we have a good record, but the days you don’t make it to the final they hurt you and live with you, probably more than the wins, so you try to get that experience in the group and explain that you have to take the opportunity and just go out and try to play your best.

“You think back to all the finals you’ve been to, there’s so much learning and a lot of PRO14, URC finals – the competition has changed names so many times I don’t know what it’s called. We’ve been in loads of them. We gained loads and we lost loads.

At the end of the match, Hugo Keenan, hit twice in the head and chest by passes from close range, finally had his moment. It wasn’t quite a gallop between the defenders. It was not necessary. He wandered through two flat-footed redshirts and fell over the line for 40-17.

“It will be incredibly special if we can match Toulouse and put five stars on the shirt,” Sexton said. “Hopefully we don’t have any more lessons to learn.”

Sometimes it’s like a horse in the Grand National and which club goes the distance over a long season that started in September and will end in two weeks at the end of May. Leinster have so far pulled it off with equal measures of grace and grumble.

The game ended with the announcer moaning “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to Marseille”. At that time, the shadow was just embracing the East Stand and the players already knew that.