Leinster evaluate loss as Toulouse celebrate victory in Europe

This was only the third final to be decided in extra-time and as in 1996 against Cardiff in the Arms Park and 2005 against Stade Francais in Murrayfield, Toulouse emerged triumphant again

So, the narrative will be that Leinster are the Buffalo Bills of the Champions Cup. The great chokers of European rugby. That’s the territory that comes with losing three finals in a row, and a fourth since their last triumph. Yet whatever about letting slip a winning lead a year ago there was certainly no choking here, no shame either in this latest, excruciating near miss.

As in almost all Leinster’s previous finals, and others, the margins were again minuscule. Where Ciaran Frawley missed with an 80th minute drop goal to complete what would have been arguably Leinster’s greatest win, so Rémi Tales missed a last-minute drop goal for Racing 92 to force the 2018 final into extra time.

By contrast, Antoine Dupont found a couple of key 50-22s with inches to spare. Each team had a couple of claims for tries ruled out before Toulouse, biding their time and seizing the moment, availed of James Lowe’s sinbinning in extra time and Frawley being treated on the deck to finally outflank Leinster’s defence for Matthis Lebel’s scorching finish three minutes in extra time.

This was only the third final to be decided in extra-time and as in 1996 against Cardiff in the Arms Park and 2005 against Stade Francais in Murrayfield, Toulouse emerged triumphant again. When you know how to win and all that. This was their ninth winning final in a row dating back to 2008 and their sixth Champions Cup, with most French observers regarding this as their best.


In starkly cruel contrast, Leinster made a sore and painful exit from north London after this epic final, but while there was desolation and a sense of regret was again evident, there was also a discernible defiance, a real belief that this will make them rather than break them, beginning with the URC run-in.

“The difference between this year and last year is we fully believed, even up to the last few minutes, that we were going to go and win,” maintained Robbie Henshaw.

“There is full confidence in the group that we will win. Obviously not this year but we’ll keep building and keep building. We can’t look back, you have to keep going forward. We have a chance to go out next week and put our best shot into the URC and try and win a trophy this year.

Henshaw also denied previous final losses affected them mentally.

“There wasn’t nerves. The stadium was incredible. You literally couldn’t hear a thing out there at times. Sometimes that little breakdown in communication has an effect on a pass or something like that.

“Definitely the environment, it was like a cauldron, and you literally couldn’t hear a thing. Potentially that had an impact but we were fully confident today that we were well able for it.”

That palpable sense of defiance in continually hunting down that fifth star was exemplified by James Ryan.

“What we said in the changing room was: ‘When you want to do great things and you want to achieve great things, you always want the risk of failing greatly as well.’ Do you know what I mean?

“Would I rather be in a team that tries to be the best team in Europe every year and have risks in a team like this? I still would,” said Ryan, with Leo Cullen nodding in approval alongside him.

“That’s part of trying to do special things, but as I said, you run the risk of feeling like this. But that’s the way we are. We want to win trophies and there’s a lot more hurt now. We just have to bounce back. That’s the way it is. Bounce back in another competition [the URC] to go after, and hopefully do as well as we can in that.”

Even so, the review will again be painful and leave them with laments.

“It’s a tough one to take,” admitted Henshaw, who ruefully admitted to feeling pain “everywhere”, not least emotionally after putting in a huge shift. “Hard to summarise it – it was a game that had everything. Probably, looking back we were a little bit, I don’t know, not ourselves in that first period.

“In that first half we had loads of chances and a few balls just didn’t go to hand whereas it usually would,” he admitted. “It will be tough to look back on it and see where it was lost.

“We didn’t hit our full performance to finish them off in attack. We let ourselves down a little bit around the ruck, the breakdown, they came hard there at us and that stopped the momentum at crucial times.

In investing time on developing a new defence, it would seem as if this has served to diminish their once-famed attack, although Henshaw maintained Leinster did not spend less time on attack.

“I don’t think so. We do spend a lot of time on attack. Probably the defence system we’re in, it does take a lot out of you when you do transition to attack, that’s when you’re working hard in defence and you are blowing hard from all the work you are putting in to get hard off the line, get back and set.

“Potentially that had some impact when we’re a bit tired from the transition, and to get the ball to the space and score. It was probably just down to our own little bits of errors that let us down and a few balls didn’t go to hand. We hold on to them and keep building pressure, and we score, I think.”

All that being said, in addition Leinster will also rue how much better Toulouse managed extra time. The six-time winners were that bit more savvy. And so they remain the standard bearers.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times