The Irish giants reached the Champions Cup final with an emphatic 40-17 thumping of the reigning champions, Toulouse, and they now get a chance to avenge last year’s semi-final defeat to La Rochelle when they meet the French team in Marseille in the decider on 28 May. La Rochelle of course were pipped by Toulouse in last year’s final so they too have plenty to play for.
But as the Irish will quickly point out, the Leinster captain Johnny Sexton did not play when they lost to La Rochelle last year. And his value of the 36-year-old to the Vodacom URC log leaders and four-time European champions was underlined in their imperious performance against Toulouse.
The French media heaped praise not only on Leinster, who they said gave Toulouse a rare “rugby lesson”, they were also filled with admiration for Sexton.
“The years pass, the concussions too, but he is still there. At 36, we wonder if he is still at the level, but Sexton proves in high-stakes matches that he is still just as effective.”
Those were the words of La Figaro’s Arnau Coudry, who also had this to say about Leinster: “Leinster shines with its organisation, its style of play programmed and recited off by heart. Cold efficiency.”
The form of Sexton and Leinster is certainly a loud warning to the teams they will meet in the Vodacom URC play-offs, which begin the weekend after the Champions Cup final. Leinster will surely start the final as favourites, so the chances are good that they will be heading into the Vodacom URC play-offs as the reigning European champions.
The full scale of Leinster’s win can be understood when you remember that Toulouse not only went into the game not only as defending champions, but also having won the most European titles. Leinster now have a chance to equal their number of Champions Cup wins as they go in search of their fifth European triumph.
Toulouse, who had been involved in close, emotional tussles with two other Irish Vodacom URC teams - Ulster in the two-leg round of 16 tie and Munster in the quarter-final - before bumping into the Leinster machine did take an early lead in the semi-final. But it was quickly cancelled out as Leinster took charge in the first half and effectively killed the game fairly early.
It was a much closer affair in Sunday’s semi-final between two other French teams, La Rochelle and Racing 92. The latter looked the likely winners for much of the first half but the visitors, coached by former Ireland flyhalf Ronan O’Gara, capitalised on a period of prolonged pressure by scoring just on the stroke of halftime to cut what had been a 10-3 deficit to just two points.
In the second half they were helped by two yellow cards and a penalty try against a Racing team that lost Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane to an injury sustained in the pre-match warmup. An emotional Nyakane had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates went through several malfunctions in the set scrums, particularly when they were down on numbers.
Racing did come back strongly in the third quarter and La Rochelle had to defend well to retain their two point lead before their efforts to keep the ball through a series of pick-and-drives eventually saw them force Racing to commit too many numbers to the breakdown and that left space for former (Auckland) Blues flyhalf Ihaia West to go over untouched in the right corner.
It was an important score for West as his overall performance, particularly kicking at posts, was well below what Sexton produced for the previous day’s winning team.
La Rochelle had to dig deep to win by 20-13 and they were also impressive in their win over Montpellier in the quarterfinal the previous week but Leinster should start the final as overwhelming favourites.
Their appearance in the final, which will be played in the weekend between the final round of the Vodacom URC regular season and the start of the knock-out phase of that competition, does pose an interesting question ahead of their Irish derby against Munster at the Aviva Stadium this coming weekend.
Leinster took an understrength team to South Africa, where they lost narrowly to both the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers, and their reasoning for that, which was that they were saving themselves for the Champions Cup, suggests they will play their alternative team again this week.
While they were good enough to push both the South African coastal franchises, a weakened Leinster team won’t be welcomed by the South African challenge, particularly the Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers, who are level on points with Munster in second place on the log. The two coastal franchises will be rooting for a Leinster win as it will give them a chance to play for second and the all-important home ground advantage for both the quarterfinal and semi-finals.
Champions Cup semi-final results:
Leinster 40 Toulouse 17
Racing 92 13 La Rochelle 20
Final - Saturday 28 May:
17h45: Leinster v La Rochelle (Marseilles)
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results:
Benetton 39 Zebre 17
Dragons 18 Cardiff 19