Leo Cullen praised Leinster’s application after the defending champions swept aside Toulouse in a 30-12 Heineken Champions Cup semi-final win at the Aviva Stadium.
James Lowe, Luke McGrath and Scott Fardy all touched down and fit-again captain Jonathan Sexton kicked 12 points as the Irish province advanced to face 2017 winners Saracens in a mouth-watering May 11 decider at St James’ Park in Newcastle.
“Probably what pleased me most is the attitude of the players over the course of the last couple of weeks and how they applied themselves in training,” said head coach Cullen.
“When they prepare well, they’ve a much better chance of performing well in these big games. There was great fight for each other. You could see the players, how much it means to them.
“I think the fight to stay in the battle is really important from our guys. I think they showed a lot of resilience, particularly as they (Toulouse) got close to our tryline. They’re good qualities to have in these big games.”
While the returning fly-half Sexton was the official man of the match, the title holders had a number of star performers as they restricted Toulouse to just three penalty goals from Thomas Ramos and one from replacement Romain Ntamack.
Chief among them was London Irish-bound flanker Sean O’Brien, whose return to fitness in recent months has coincided with long-term injuries to Josh Van Der Flier and Dan Leavy.
“Seanie is an unbelievable competitor. He’s worked incredibly hard to get back from his injury. You can see what it means to Seanie the way he plays,” said Cullen.
“I thought he was really exceptional today. It’s not just his performance, it’s how he leads the group.
“In the week, the way he talks. How he understands the threats the opposition pose, both sides of the ball. In terms of dominating that contact area, he’s one of the best players to have ever played the game, certainly Irish guys.
“I think he’s showing again what he’s capable of. It was good to have Seanie back out there.”
Meanwhile, despite the obvious frustration at losing to Leinster in such comprehensive fashion, Toulouse skipper Jerome Kaino was doing his best to remain upbeat.
With a place in the Top 14 Championship’s knock-out stages already assured, the former New Zealand international believes they need to take the positives from their European adventure, which showed they are a resurgent force.
“I think our young group can take a lot of experience from that game,” he said. “It’s disappointing we couldn’t get the result, but I think we still have another challenge ahead of us in the Top 14.
“We’ll take a lot of experience, a lot of positives, from our European Cup campaign.
“I think they (Leinster) were able to build on their momentum. We defended well at times, but we weren’t able to build on our momentum when we did get forward.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
Leinster take on Toulouse in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup in Dublin on Sunday.
Leo Cullen’s men are bidding to win back-to-back titles, but must overcome the stiff challenge of an in-form French opponent first.
Here, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the match:
RETURN OF O’BRIEN AND SEXTON
The return of star men Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien will give Leinster a timely boost.
Sexton, 33, has not played for the province since the 26-17 defeat to Munster on December 29. But even with a lack of minutes, has the ability to turn it on when it matters.
The World Player of the Year endured a patchy Six Nations campaign, yet his clever kicking game and solid distribution will add a fresh cutting edge and composure to the Leinster attack.
O’Brien, meanwhile, has struggled to make the impact expected of him after returning from an arm injury in February.
A titanic performance against Scotland in the Six Nations was followed by a number of sub-par displays where his fitness and general involvement has looked off the boil.
Sunday’s fixture, though, is the perfect opportunity for the 32-year-old to rediscover that sparkling form of old.
With injuries to Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier, O’Brien’s ferocious carrying and tireless work at the breakdown will be essential to Leinster securing frontfoot ball.
The Blues need their key men to shine if they are to reach a second European final in two seasons.
CAN LEINSTER RETURN TO THEIR BEST?
Leinster may not have produced the same roaring performances of late, but with a place in the decider at stake, expect them to come storming out of the traps early on.
In fact, for all the talk of Leinster’s recent mixed displays, they have only lost once in their last 11 matches, most of which have been played without a full deck of cards to select from.
With marquee names like Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner returning to the fold, it’s set up to be a blockbuster battle against a strong Toulouse side.
For Leinster to advance, they need to produce a devastating defensive effort to starve Toulouse’s accuracy and pace in attack. When in possession, Sexton needs to select the right options and push his forwards to grind through the phases, with the sheer pace of Jordan Larmour to unlock out wide.
James Lowe and Henshaw’s accuracy with and without the ball – added to Luke McGrath and Sexton’s general class – will allow them to gain a foothold in the contest.
TOULOUSE ATTACKING FLAIR
Toulouse, currently leading the Top14 by eight points, have already beaten Leinster this season – 28-27 in the pool stages in October.
However, if the French side are to advance to a first final since 2010, they need to get the basics right, win their set piece and take opportunities at the right times.
Defensively, Toulouse showed iron-like qualities in the quarter-final win over Racing 92 last month, playing for 58 minutes with 14-men after Zack Holmes was sent-off midway through the first half.
To restrict Racing – the best attacking side in the league – to just 11 points after Holmes’ dismissal underlines their granite-like abilities and determination when the pressure is on. This will be essential against Leinster.
Ugo Mola’s men have shown plenty of attacking flair, most recently illustrated in their thrilling 47-44 victory over Clermont last weekend, which sealed a seventh victory in eight matches.
In Antoine Dupont, Toulouse have one of the most dangerous half-backs in European rugby who can cause real damage with ball in hand.
Dupont was man of the match against Racing and his sniping breaks from No10 make him a real threat to Leinster’s defence.
Outside the French international, Cheslin Kolbe, Yoann Huget and Thomas Ramos have the ability to attack from any angle and will put Rob Kearney and Co under all sorts of pressure if they are afford the right ball.
If Toulouse can mix that accuracy in defence and attack, they will be in with a chance.
Billy Vunipola was on the score sheet as Saracens reached their third European final in four seasons after beating Heineken Champions Cup opponents Munster 32-16.
Saracens’ England number eight delivered an official man-of-the-match display, but he was booed most times he touched the ball at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
But the powerful back-row forward claimed Saracens’ second touchdown to book an appointment in next month’s final against holders Leinster or French heavyweights Toulouse at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
Fly-half Owen Farrell was the architect of Saracens’ semi-final victory, kicking 22 points, while flanker Michael Rhodes also touched down during a dominant second-half team performance.
Despite wing Darren Sweetnam’s try, two Tyler Bleyendaal penalties, a long-range Conor Murray strike and JJ Hanrahan conversion, Munster suffered a seventh successive European semi-final defeat on their record 14th appearance in the competition’s penultimate knockout stage.
The stadium resembled a home match for Munster, with their fans considerably outnumbering Saracens’ supporters among a crowd that barely half-filled the Ricoh.
The Saracens minority immediately had something to cheer about, though, as Farrell kicked his team into a second-minute lead from 35 metres.
A Bleyendaal penalty drew Munster level seven minutes later, and although jeers accompanied Vunipola’s first touch of the ball, Saracens were quickly into their stride as a second Farrell penalty made it 6-3.
Farrell completed a penalty hat-trick in the 27th minute, but a second Bleyendaal strike quickly cut the gap again to three points.
FULL TIME | Saracens 32-16 Munster ⚫️🔴 pic.twitter.com/swdAZdJFvr— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) April 20, 2019
Saracens continued to dominate in terms of possession and territory, yet too often they were let down by a combination of poor handling and resolute Munster defence that had centre Chris Farrell at its core.
Munster drew level three minutes before the break when Murray landed a penalty from just inside Saracens’ half, before a fourth successful Farrell penalty made it 12-9 at the interval.
Saracens skipper Brad Barritt did not appear for the second period and he was replaced by Nick Tompkins, but the English champions were not disrupted.
They scored the game’s opening try within three minutes of the restart when Rhodes rounded off a sustained spell of pressure.
Farrell’s conversion opened up a 10-point lead, piling pressure on a Munster side that had defended impressively, but lacked an attacking spark, before his fifth and sixth penalty successes made it 25-9.
Munster had conceded 10 points in four minutes, and they fell further behind as Farrell’s sixth successful penalty surged Saracens on.
But Munster rallied strongly early in the final quarter, setting up camp near Saracens’ line before wing Sweetnam scored a try and substitute Hanrahan kicked the touchline conversion.
Munster, though, could not find a way back, and Vunipola touched down eight minutes from time, with Farrell’s conversion ending the scoring and sealing an impressive win.