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Leinster to face Saracens in Champions Cup final after suffocating Toulouse

As long ago as October the smart money was on Leinster and Saracens contesting the Champions Cup final and a brutal Anglo-Irish slugfest duly awaits. On the evidence of this weekend’s semi-finals there is no doubt the best sides in Europe are heading for Newcastle, nor that the finale will be anything less than thunderous.

As Toulouse were bluntly reminded on a beautiful clear blue Dublin afternoon, the defending champions are not obviously in the mood to relinquish their crown meekly. In common with Saracens their rugby is usually more efficient than effervescent but its effectiveness is self-evident. If the “Slog on the Tyne” is not a particularly sexy promotional tagline, a high-class collision of immovable objects looms next month.

Leinster were certainly too good on the day for their French opponents, whose offloading game was mostly suffocated at source and who finished a distant second in terms of the aerial contest.

Tactically, not for the first time, the Irish province were a step or two ahead and their returning international totems Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw showed enough to suggest there is still plenty of Celtic tiger in the tank this season.

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Like Saracens, too, they are smart in the way they recruit from overseas to complement their well-stocked academy. Scott Fardy was only starting because Rhys Ruddock pulled out ill but the Australian back-row was a constant thorn in Toulouse’s side, as was their energetic New Zealand wing James Lowe. For all the individual spark of the brilliant Cheslin Kolbe, the visitors were never able to break free for long enough to threaten Leinster’s fifth appearance in a European final.

As yet they have yet to lose one and the “drive for five” gold stars on their blue jerseys should not be underestimated. For the second consecutive day it was a tough day to be wearing red and the cry of “Allez les Bleus!” at one stage almost certainly hailed from a Dublin postcode. Aside from the opening seconds, when Toulouse began with a touch of elan in their own 22, there was not a lot for the travelling French fans to shout about. “The best team won, definitely,” said the Toulouse coach, Ugo Mola. “They’re not the best team in Europe by chance.”

James Lowe reaches for the line to score the first try of the match.

James Lowe reaches for the line to score the first try of the match. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Give Leinster an inch and, at Europe’s top level, they take a kilometre. Thomas Ramos can be a thrilling catalyst at full-back but two costly first-half errors played directly into Leinster hands. The first came when an overcooked restart gave Leinster a scrum back on halfway and supplied the platform for the home team’s opening try. There was still much to do, admittedly, when Cian Healy fed Lowe wide on the left but he displayed skill and determination to crash over in the corner.

Sexton’s fine conversion compounded French pain and further trouble soon materialised after Ramos had an attempted clearance charged down, allowing Leinster more prime territory in which to operate. In his desperation to halt Irish momentum, Richie Gray stuck out an illegal hand at a ruck to earn a yellow card and, with the weakened Toulouse pack under pressure, Luke McGrath burrowed over for his side’s second try.

Toulouse badly needed a break and enjoyed one when a deliberate knockdown close to his line by Henshaw earned him a visit to the sin-bin and Ramos trimmed the deficit to 17-6. The visitors were also reprieved when a midfield obstruction involving the busy Jack Conan ruled out a potential second try for Lowe, although Henshaw’s pass to the wing looked forward anyway.

To reverse the tide Toulouse needed to score the next try but it was Fardy, hard as nails, who stretched over after 53 minutes. Sexton, playing his first game of the calendar year for Leinster, slotted another conversion and at 24-9 it was effectively game over.

Team of the weekend

15 Alex Goode Saracens 

14 Damian Penaud Clermont 

13 Chris Farrell Munster

12 Robbie Henshaw Leinster 

11 James Lowe Leinster

10 Owen Farrell Saracens 

9 Morgan Parra Clermont

1 Clément Castets Toulouse

2 Jean-Charles Orioli La Rochelle

3 Tadhg Furlong Leinster

4 Devin Toner  Leinster 

5 George Kruis Saracens

6 Semi Kunatani Harlequins

7 Grégory Alldritt La Rochelle 

8 Billy Vunipola Saracens

Ashton good value for Sale 

Sale’s battling 24-20 defeat at La Rochelle in the first of the weekend’s European Challenge Cup semi-finals suggested they can make the Premiership’s top six. Chris Ashton returned to score a try and was close to his England form of the autumn. Sale are also busy recruiting for next season. The Wasps tight-head prop Jake Cooper-Woolley is heading north and he looks likely to be joined by the Wales and Ospreys loose-head Nicky Smith following the decision by the Springbok Steven Kitshoff to stay at the Stormers.

Smith a rising power at No10

Harlequins may not have prevented Clermont Auvergne from making it an all-French European Challenge Cup final but Paul Gustard’s inconsistent side produced a rousing comeback at Stade Marcel Michelin to go down 32-27. Apart from an explosive appearance off the bench from their Fijian back-row Semi Kunatani there was an eye-catching display at No10 from Marcus Smith. The fly-half, who has just turned 20, could be a bolter for Eddie Jones’s World Cup squad should the England head coach continue to ignore the claims of Danny Cipriani to go to Japan as cover for Owen Farrell and George Ford.

Try of the weekend

James Lowe (Leinster)
v Toulouse

The wing scored a poacher’s try to turn things Leinster’s way after an early Toulouse barrage. Sean O’Brien slipped the New Zealander a clever pass but Lowe made a try from nothing, breaking two tackles to power over from 15 metres out. 

Toulouse are clearly a regathering European force but there remains a gap between their individual merits and the collective cohesion that has become Leinster’s trademark. “A lot of their players are the best in their positions in the world,” said Jerome Kaino, the former All Black and captain of Toulouse. “As a system and a team they’re definitely world class.”

Saracens will be keen to test that thesis and Sexton acknowledged that Leinster will face one of the biggest battles of their careers to become the first team in history to win five European titles. “Saracens are an outstanding side and I’ve heard them repeatedly referencing our game against them last year,” he said.

“They felt they didn’t fire as many punches as they wanted to and Billy Vunipola wasn’t playing. That’s why you flick the switch straight away and start thinking about them. I think it’s going to be the toughest game this group will probably play.”

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