Leinster have recorded more than a few statement wins in Europe over the years but this may well be the most impressive of them all as a side missing a raft of top-class Irish internationals destroyed an unbeaten, high-flying Toulouse in Ballsbridge.
Trailing the Top 14 side by two points in Pool One prior to this, the bonus-point victory now leaves the reigning champions three in front as all eyes turn to the final round of group games next week. Leinster travel to Wasps, Toulouse welcome Bath to France.
It’s impossible to imagine Leinster slipping up from here and being pipped to top spot. Not after the utterly convincing beating of a top-class side that arrived in Dublin on the back of a 12-game unbeaten streak stretching all the way back to September.
Leo Cullen had to do without nine Irish internationals – plus ex-Wallaby Joe Tomane and James Lowe – for this Saturday lunchtime kick-off. The missing faces boasted between them over a thousand provincial caps, almost 500 Test appearances and close to a hundred major medals.
This should have been a nail-biter. It was anything but.
Toulouse were stubborn and committed. They were locked and loaded with a side replete with French class and southern hemisphere stardust and yet they hardly fired a shot all day. Leinster dominated in possession and territory. They squeezed the pips out of the visitors.
The first-half lived up to all expectations. Though low-scoring, the intensity was off the charts with two teams committed to moving the ball through the hands. There was one point in that period when 25 minutes passed without boot being put to ball in open play.
If much of it was pick-and-go, trench warfare stuff – and the second-half was much the same – then that was to be expected with both sides mindful of the other’s ability to strike on the counter and, as it wore on, Leinster began to turn the screw.
One attack lasted 38 phases and came within a metre or two of the Toulouse line before Julien Marchand pilfered the ball at the 39th ruck inside his own 22. It was a monumental defensive shift from the French side with the game perfectly balanced at three-apiece.
Luke McGrath did cross the try line seven minutes from the break as Leinster laid another siege but the Irish nine was held up by a trailing arm before he could dot down. It would prove to be merely a frustrating delay to the game’s first five-pointer.
The pressure on Toulouse was finally beginning to tell, the number of penalties conceded building up, and referee Luke Pearce was surely on the verge of sending the next miscreant to the sin bin as a succession of Leinster scrums were sabotaged close in.
It didn’t need a yellow in the end, the home side instead benefiting from a penalty advantage off another setpiece to launch the ball wide to the right touchline where Adam Byrne was only prevented from scoring by a brilliant Yoann Huget tackle.
This too was a temporary reprieve.
Three phases later and Jack Conan went over. The place erupted. Ross Byrne’s conversion made it 10-3 with the break approaching though Toulouse served notice of a continuing intent by landing their second penalty via out-half Thomas Ramos before the pause.
The second-half took its lead from the first, Leinster dominating both territory and possession, but the defending champions were huffing and puffing with little structure or imagination until a snapshot of magic in the 51st minute.
Ross Byrne made it, pinging a trademark crossfield kick from midfield to the left wing where Dave Kearney – starting his first European game in three injury-ruined seasons – jumped high above the scrambling Romain Ntamack and grounding just inside the chalk.
Byrne couldn’t land the conversion but the score now was 15-6 and the pressure on the Top 14 side didn’t dip. It was, in fact, clear when Byrne spurned an easy three points and kicked a penalty to touch on 57 minutes that the hosts were eyeing five match points rather than the four.
Leinster took another massive step towards that on the hour when, from that Byrne kick to touch, they inched inevitably towards the try line from the five-metre lineout. Sean Cronin was the one to dot down, a fact confirmed after lengthy deliberation by the TMO.
Up 22-6 with Byrne’s conversion, Leinster finally found themselves with some defending to take care of. Their efforts at this point where as impressive as anything managed at the far end, the referee finally penalising Toulouse for holding on after an age camped on the home line.
Sensational stuff but that fourth try still needed attending to.
It came with five minutes to go thanks to the quick thinking of replacement scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park who launched a long looping pass wide to Adam Byrne from a quick tap penalty. The wing was over before the cover could scramble over.
Job done. Well, almost.
Cheslin Kolbe nipped in for a cheeky try, which he converted himself, just as the clock dipped into the red. It was the one time all day that the flying Springbok wing saw a clear stretch of green grass which, in its own way, demonstrated just how effective Leinster had been.
Leinster: J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O’Loughlin, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.
Replacements: J Tracy for Cronin, E Byrne for Healy, A Porter for Furlong and Gibson-Park for McGrath (all 61); M Deegan for Conan and N Reid for R Byrne (both 73); R Molony for Fardy and C O’Brien for O’Loughlin (both 78).
Toulouse: M Medard; C Kolbe, S Guitoune, R Ntamack, Y Huget; T Ramos, A Dupont; C Castets, J Marchand, C Faumuina; R Arnold, J Tekori; F Cros, R Elstadt, J Kaino.
Replacements: D Aldegheri for Faumuina (HIA, 33); Z Holmes for Ramos (49); P Mauvaka for Marchand and C Baille for Castets (both 53); S Bezy for Ntamack (56); A Placines for Kaino and P Faasalele for Tekori (both 58); L Madaule for Cros (70).
Referee: L Pearce (Eng).