By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) – Johnny Sexton returned to action and top form to lead holders Leinster to the European Champions Cup final on Sunday, outclassing Toulouse 30-12 in a clash of the competition’s two most successful teams.
The Leinster captain, who had not played for the province this year and was out of form at the Six Nations, looked back to his old self at the Aviva Stadium, controlling possession and kicking near flawlessly in a man of the match performance.
Two Scott Fardy tries and one for James Lowe mean Leinster will take their bid to surpass Toulouse and become the first team to win five European titles to St James’ Park, Newcastle on May 11 where they face Saracens, champions in 2016 and 2017.
“We knew Toulouse had four stars on their jersey but Sarries have two and were superb against Munster yesterday, so we know we’re going to be up against it,” Sexton said in a pitchside interview after one of his side’s best performances of the year.
After Sexton and Thomas Ramos exchanged penalties, Leinster got their first try doing what they do best – pressuring their opponents with quality build-up play to give Lowe enough sight of the corner to brush past two defenders and score.
While the French Top 14 league leaders won a freewheeling 10-try duel with Clermont Auvergne last week, it was Leinster who brought the high tempo on Sunday and had a deserved second try after 25 minutes.
With Toulouse lock Richie Gray in the sin bin, Sexton opted for touch rather than the posts with the resulting penalty and Fardy – a late addition after Rhys Ruddock was ruled out with illness – was in the right place when Leinster’s superior pack bulldozed their way over the line.
Lowe looked like he could have all but settled the tie at the end of the half but his try was ruled out for an earlier infringement, leaving Toulouse still in contention 11 points down at the break.
The visitors, contesting their first semi-final in eight years, briefly cut the margin to eight points but were far too loose throughout and Leinster’s total control yielded another fine forwards’ try for Fardy 30 minutes from time.
While Toulouse emptied the bench and looked the better for introducing Maxime Medard and Romain Ntamack, they could not trouble an outstanding Leinster defensive line as the clinical Irish province marched onto a mouth-watering final.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)