'Ball-stealing machine' Dupont stars in pulsating final

Antoine Dupont
Antoine Dupont now heads to the Madrid Sevens with France, which begins on Friday [Getty Images]

On the biggest days, the greatest players step up.

When Antoine Dupont nearly pulled off an almost impossible try assist in the early moments of the Champions Cup final, you knew he was up for creating history.

As Leinster's Jamison Gibson-Park collided with him, the Toulouse scrum-half threw an outrageous offload back infield for Juan Cruz Mallia to score what looked to be the opening try.

Replays showed that Dupont's foot was in touch, but it was the start of a special cup final performance.

Dupont inspired Toulouse to a thrilling 31-22 triumph after extra time at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and ensured his club were crowned European champions for a record-extending sixth time.

Reflecting on his team's hard-earned triumph, the France scrum-half gave a very humble answer when asked which was his favourite individual moment of the final.

After being named player of the match - and later Champions Cup player of the season - Dupont, described prior to the game by a team-mate as "an alien" because of his outrageous ability, had plenty of options.

However, he simply said it was hearing the full-time whistle and knowing the job was done.

"It is awesome to be able to win with this team," he said. "We really wanted to win the sixth star after losing to Leinster over the last two years in the semi-finals.

"Extra time is crunch time, money time, and you shouldn't ask questions, just get your head down and do what you need to do. You win the game mentally."

Sevens helped 'ball-stealing machine'

Leinster comprehensively defeated Toulouse in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup in 2022 and 2023, with well-executed gameplans to shut down Dupont.

For large portions of the final in London, his attacking threat was again nullified but this time the 27-year-old showed his magic at the breakdown.

"We haven't seen Dupont's attacking game today but he has made four or five match-defining turnovers," former England wing Chris Ashton told BBC Radio 5 Live. "He's been a ball-stealing machine."

The game was billed as potential match-up between Toulouse's blistering attack - which ran in 46 tries en route to the final - against Leinster coach Jacques Nienaber's blitz defence.

Despite there being no tries in 80 minutes, it displayed the French side's determination to deliver the sixth star through any means possible.

Toulouse boss Ugo Mola praised his captain's work on the ground and picked out two of his steals – both on the tryline - as vital moments.

One of those came when Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan broke clear and looked set to score the game's opening try, only to be denied by a brilliant try-saving tackle from full-back Blair Kinghorn.

With quick ball almost certainly giving the Irish province a score, Dupont was there to win a vital turnover.

It was no coincidence that the Toulouse star was the first player at the breakdown.

After playing for the France Sevens team at tournaments in February and March in a bid to make it to a home Olympics, Dupont is seeing some of the benefits of playing the shorter, faster game now he is back in 15s.

"Playing in sevens the rucks are really important," said Dupont. "It is something I worked on, so it is an asset I gained from there."

Obsession is often why superstars get to the top and after France were knocked out of a home World Cup at the quarter-final stage by South Africa last year, a huge legacy-defining moment disappeared in front of him.

Dupont may never again get the opportunity to win a home World Cup, but his quest for Olympic glory seems to be driving him on to even higher standards.

The scrum-half flies out to Madrid on Monday to play for France in the Svns Grand Final and will then return for Toulouse's bid to clinch the Top 14 title before attempting to add Olympic gold to his incredible collection.

Aiming for greatness always brings 'risks of failing'

Leinster players walk off the pitch
Leinster last won a trophy in 2021 [Getty Images]

It wasn't only Dupont who was making turnovers as Toulouse's last-ditch defence on a number occasions stopped their opposition and proved the difference.

The Top 14 side made 19 turnovers in comparison to Leinster’s eight and made 242 tackles to Leo Cullen’s side's 137.

"Toulouse scrambled well and came up with big moments defensively and that was the difference," Cullen said.

"The lads were immense out there and kept firing shots throughout but didn't get the rewards for lots of difference reasons. We poured a lot into it.

"We just felt we're so close to breaking them and most people in the stadium would have that sense."

Leinster have now lost three Champions Cup finals in a row after back-to-back final defeats to La Rochelle in 2022 and 2023.

They last won the European Cup in 2018 and that feeling - one Leinster co-captain James Ryan experienced early in his career - is something he believes will come again.

"When you want to do great things and achieve great things you always run the risk of failing greatly," Ryan said.

"Would I rather be in a team that tries to be the best team in Europe every year and risks feeling like this? Yes I would.

"That is the way we are. We want to win trophies and that hurt, but we must now bounce back."

A certain Mr Dupont knows all about bouncing back from disappointment in the pursuit of greatness.