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Irish star dimmed by French dominance

A season of complete French rugby ascendancy in Europe was confirmed last night.

Six weeks after a France’s Grand Slam in the 6 Nations, Biarritz joined Toulouse in the Heineken Cup final. And in the Amlin Challenge Cup, Toulon will start the final hot favourites to beat Cardiff for another French triumph.

Irish rugby’s bright star of 2009 has dimmed and all but gone out within the first four months of 2010.

In northern Spain yesterday, Biarritz’s power was too much for a disappointing Munster. And on Saturday, Leinster paid the price for taking an incomplete game to Toulouse and could not match the multi-faceted threat of the locals.

The French side gave Michael Cheika’s men an object lesson on the many elements of a game required at this level. They could slug it out up front, play fast or slow, close or wide.

They won rapid second phase ball and their forwards were comfortable either in the set pieces or loose play.

Leinster put a huge amount into a doomed effort to retain their cup. But they lacked some of the components in their game which potential Heineken champions must possess.

With Australian Rocky Elsom blasting holes in opponents defences, carrying the ball strongly and securely last season, Leinster had an added dimension to their game.

But they never replaced Elsom and they have never carried the same sinuous threat up front since.

You couldn’t for a moment fault the courage or commitment of Cheika’s side in Toulouse on Saturday. Even when they went 23-9 behind with two sudden tries in five minutes by Toulouse, they kept going. That brought the reward of Jamie Heaslip’s try that offered them hope.

But in truth, there was always an extra gear in Toulouse’s locker, whether it was up front in the set scrums which they dominated, the line-outs in which they excelled or the loose where they foraged powerfully.

Leinster did their best but they always looked inferior in these critical departments.

Leinster’s well honed structure and industry kept them in the game for a long time. But they compounded their own weaknesses with some costly indiscipline and simple errors that bedevilled further their own ambitions.

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Toulouse had the class and greater composure. It was never enough to give them a comfortable ride; Leinster’s pride decreed that would not be the case.

But you could see enough of Toulouse’s ambition to know that Leinster would be in trouble if they managed to realise it. With tries by Yannick Jauzion and David Skrela, that happened and Toulouse surged clear.

It may not have been a vintage season for ‘Les Toulousains’ in the French Championship thus far but they clearly possess a rich seam of quality that can lift them beyond ordinary mortals.

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