Toulouse v Harlequins: Five takeaways as ‘remarkable’ Francois Cros causes chaos and disgraceful director costs Quins

James While
Romain Ntamack for Toulouse against Harlequins

Romain Ntamack for Toulouse against Harlequins.

Following Toulouse’s 38-26 victory over Harlequins in the Investec Champions Cup semi-final, here are our five takeaways from the clash at Stadium de Toulouse.

The top line

A game of staggering pace, littered with loose play and errors, but punctuated with some absolute brilliance with ball in hand from both sides saw Toulouse move into their sixth Investec Champions Cup final as they disposed of a doughty Harlequins.

Six tries from Toulouse, four in the first half, saw Matthis Lebel, Peato Mauvaka, Thibaud Flament, Antoine Dupont (2) and Juan Cruz Mallia played four from Quins who saw Marcus Smith, Will Evans, Cadan Murley and Tyrone Green cross the whitewash.

Quins might rue their first 20 minutes – their work around contact simply wasn’t up to the mark – and the early burst, finished off by a brace in seven minutes from close range from Dupont was key. In a much improved second half, one that the visitors won 14-7, Quins number eight Alex Dombrandt confirmed after the match that they will regard this as an opportunity lost, one that they failed to start hot in and one were they failed to deal with the sheer power of Toulouse in the opening exchanges.

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Best team

Even after the self-criticism from Dombrandt, even the most diehard Quins fan must accept that Toulouse were, by a small margin, the better side on the day.

Harlequins will be furious with their lineout work – the first steal from Flament saw the opportunity for Romain Ntamack to throw out a magnificent pass to Lebel for the opening score.

Another fluffed overthrow a few moments later was at the start of the move that saw the Toulouse hooker cross for his team’s second. It was the accuracy of the hosts in contact that was the difference in those early stages – it was controlled and precise – players posting enormous length at ruck time to prevent any Quins hands from stealing and spoiling.

Francois Cros nailed yet another Player of the Match award for his 20 tackles (six of them dominant) and 12 carries, but his tireless work on both sides of the ball in that first half was nothing short of remarkable as he created chaos in the collisions.

With an ability to strike when it mattered and almost from nothing, we saw Dupont get two short-range chances but the eagle-eyed amongst Quins fans must surely ask if Blair Kinghorn was onside when chasing a kick that set up the first.

Nevertheless, great sides win marginal moments and there’s no doubt that Toulouse managed to get over those incidents, and there were many, and emerged the better side, fully deserving their win despite the efforts of Smith and his wonderful backline.

Toulouse player ratings: Antoine Dupont brace and Francois Cros masterclass steers French outfit to Champions Cup final

First-half breakdown woes

For all the handling fireworks we saw, it was Toulouse’s absolute dominance at the breakdown that was at the heart of this win, especially in the first half where they thrived in contact.

With Cros, Mauvaka and Flament creating havoc on Quins’ attempts to create mini rucks and get speed into their game, that came a cropper as the sheer ferocity of the Frenchmen around the floor contest was quite remarkable.

It was intelligence combined with brute force; Mauvaka’s work in the corner was the catalyst for the messy ball that pressured Danny Care into almost gifting Flament his try and with Cros, arguably the form player in Europe right now, doing similar in the channels for the build-up that created the second Dupont try.

On the other side of the ball it was all Toulouse too; when you’ve forwards of the size of Emmanuel Meafou at your disposal, their ability to drag defenders into the contest and create width outside with numerical mismatches is a tried and tested method of winning rugby matches and Toulouse were absolutely brutal in carry and clearing on their own ball.

Whilst there’s no doubt that Quins had the firepower to trouble the hosts, that breakdown control was always going to be crucial and sadly for them, they lost that key contest by some distance.

Second-half rally

Beasted in the first, Quins’ chat around half-time was all about speed over the ball to nullify the power of the Toulouse forwards. Challenging low and fast, Andre Esterhuizen, Joe Marler, Evans and Dombrandt all grabbed crucial turnovers, using speed of thought to clamp over the ball before the clearing players arrived.

With ball to work off, the visitors did everything they could to get the ball in the hands of their speed merchants at the back and the try from Green, one he started with a fabulous offload, was testimony to the brilliance of he, Murley and Louis Lynagh, who all contributed to a wonderful score.

But just as Quins looked as if they were going to again pull one out of the bag, so disaster struck as Jack Walker, looking to clear, made head contact with Dupont, forcing Andrew Brace to yellow card the hooker. Toulouse scored via Mallia from the ensuing lineout to close the game off.

The head contact incident was a fair call – one replayed at least five times by the French TV director before the referee dealt with the sanction; however, with Ntamack making clear shoulder-to-head contact on Esterhuizen 10 minutes before, it was an absolute disgrace that the same director showed nothing more of the incident, one that may have attracted a little more than yellow and would certainly have had an impact on the course of the game. It will be interesting to see if the Toulouse fly-half is cited post-match, but that won’t comfort the visitors, who seemed very hard done by in this incident.

Toulouse look forward

Moving into a final with Leinster, a team that beat them in Dublin three seasons ago, Toulouse will fear nobody.

They have the power up front and the skill in the back division to score heavily and it’s the likes of their less celebrated players, Paul Costes, Lebel, Alexandre Roumat and Mallia, that are really putting in the hard yards, aided and abetted by their two British imports, Kinghorn and Jack Willis, two men absolutely thriving in the Rouge et Noir.

However, it’s that breakdown power that will decide the game and this will be the heaviest of heavyweight clashes against a brilliantly drilled Leinster team who possesses an equally abrasive and skilful back five in the pack.

The head-to-heads are mouthwatering; Jamison Gibson-Park against Dupont is worth the entrance fee alone, but alongside those we’ve got Cros v Ryan Baird, Willis v Josh van der Flier and Meafou facing Joe McCarthy, all world class players in their own right.

From what we’ve seen this weekend, there’s nothing but a hair between them and there’s little question that the 2024 Investec Champions Cup will see the two best sides face each other for the ultimate club prize, exactly as it should be.

Tottenham Hotspur on May 25 is certainly the place to be.

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