Conan fires Leinster past Toulouse into Cup quarters

Luke PHILLIPS
Conan fires Leinster past Toulouse into Cup quarters

Ubiquitous No 8 Jack Conan fired defending champions Leinster into the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup with an impressive 29-13 victory over Toulouse on Saturday.

The unrelenting Leinster machine, guided by former player Leo Cullen and ex-England coach Stuart Lancaster, suffocated the free-flowing, offloading game Toulouse have been employing to such success this season. The loss was their first since September and brought to an end a 12-match undefeated run.

Conan was at the heart of a stifling home defence that allied seamlessly with a staggering ability to keep hold of possession for minutes on end.

Ross Byrne, standing in for the injured Jonny Sexton at fly-half -- with Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Dan Leavy all also missing, kicked an early opening penalty, quickly nullified by Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos.

A dancing Jordan Larmour break sparked an incredible 38 phases of play for Leinster over more than three minutes in and around the Toulouse 22-metre area, but the visitors, marshalled magnificently by ex-All Black No 8 Jerome Kaino, withstood the pressure.

Cheslin Kolbe was on hand with a fantastic try-saving tackle on sniping Luke McGrath, the diminutive Springbok winger managing to somehow prevent the Ireland scrum-half from grounding the ball from a five-metre scrum.

But Leinster continued to camp out deep in Toulouse territory, Conan finally crossing for the game's opening try on the other wing after a long pass had stretched a scrambling defence.

Byrne converted, but Ramos hit a second penalty at the whistle to leave a tense game 10-6 at half-time at a packed RDS Arena in Dublin.

Top 14 leaders Toulouse, fielding seven players called up by France coach Jacques Brunel for the opening two games of the Six Nations, were immediately on the back foot in the second period as Leinster again patiently went through the phases.

And then it came. Winger Dave Kearney soared high to gather a Byrne cross-kick and somehow rode a Romain Ntamack tackle to touch down in the corner.

There should have been a third Leinster try shortly after, a sweet line-out move seeing Conan take a short throw-in and break clear, Antoine Dupont cleverly intercepting what would have been his try-scoring pass to hooker Sean Cronin.

Cronin did get his name on the scoresheet, however, dotting down from the back of a ruck on the Toulouse line, Byrne converting for a 22-6 lead.

Then came Leinster's time to defend, a crushing tackle on Francois Cros by James Ryan bringing to an end several minutes of pressure.

Adam Byrne put the icing on the cake with a fourth try for the home side, and the bonus point, after Maori All Black scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park threw out a monster pass from a quick penalty.

Noel Reid hit the extras, while there was enough time for Kolbe to skip away for another fine individual try he converted himself.

After Munster's 41-15 mauling of Gloucester on Friday, Ulster continued the Irish provinces' winning ways with a 26-22 victory over Racing 92, who like Toulouse had gone into the game unbeaten.

It was a wingers' first-half, with European debutant Robert Baloucoune and Jacob Stockdale crossing for Ulster, Virimi Vakatawa and ex-Munsterman Simon Zebo going over for the visitors.

Stockdale bagged his brace in the second-half as tries by Brice Dulin and Teddy Iribaren kept Racing in the game, Will Addison adding two penalties and a conversion to make the final difference.

Racing remained atop Pool 4 on 21 to Ulster's 18, having managed to bag two bonus points.