Leinster v Toulouse: Champions Cup preview as Les Rouge et Noir to stun Irish side and keep Leo Cullen’s men waiting for fifth European title
Ireland face France… sorry, Leinster take on Toulouse in one of the biggest games – if not the biggest – prior to the start of the Rugby World Cup.
While there are still competitive internationals to be played ahead of the global tournament, thanks to a shortened Rugby Championship campaign in July, this clash feels the most significant. The Irish and French have stolen a march on Europe and, to a degree, the rest of the world, and these sides are a significant reason why.
Leinster are ultimately Ireland, with only three players from their Grand Slam-winning starting XV against England not coming from the Dubliners. That would have been two had Garry Ringrose been fit, while there is a case to make for Jack Conan playing ahead of Peter O’Mahony and, given his recent form, Jimmy O’Brien featuring on the wing over Mack Hansen.
They are the closest to an international team in the world game which gives them an edge on their closest competitors in the Champions Cup, but Toulouse themselves are stacked with world-class players.
While they are not at the level of Saturday’s opponents, Les Rouge et Noir form the spine of Les Bleus with Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Thibaud Flament, Francois Cros, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos all absolutely vital for both club and country.
Emmanuel Meafou, who qualifies in November, could join them as an important member of the French squad, while there is England quality in the back-row in the shape of Jack Willis and a stalwart at centre thanks to the brilliant Pita Ahki.
Leinster will be clear favourites, given the sheer depth and quality of their 23, and the fact that they have home advantage, but Toulouse are simmering ready to explode this weekend. Ugo Mola has held players back in the Top 14 ready for this encounter and the belief is evidently there that they can upset the Irishmen.
Last season, Leo Cullen’s men proved too strong in the last-four clash, emerging 40-17 triumphant, but Les Rouge et Noir are in better shape this time around. In a Toulouse side that wasn’t at its best, there was also the hint of a Six Nations hangover as Leinster ran rampant.
It will be much closer this weekend in a clash which could, ultimately, have ramifications going into the World Cup later this year.
Leinster are without Robbie Henshaw for this clash with Charlie Ngatai taking his place at centre alongside Ringrose. James Lowe is another big absentee with Jordan Larmour coming into the back three to parntner O’Brien and Hugo Keenan.
With Johnny Sexton out for the season, Ross Byrne unsurprisingly starts at fly-half and will look to continue his fine form from the Six Nations when he partners Jamison Gibson-Park.
Up front, there are few surprises but lock Ross Molony is preferred to Ryan Baird, who offers a back utility option on the bench, while Caelan Doris once again starts at blindside with Conan at number eight.
As for Toulouse, Marchand is fit after spraining his ankle in the quarter-final victory over the Sharks but it is only enough for a place on the bench as Peato Mauvaka starts.
As a result, Les Rouge et Noir are pretty much at full strength as they will look to avenge last year’s disappointing defeat in the semi-finals.
Where the game will be won
Ultimately, it will be decided by how each side deals with their opponents’ ball-in-hand game. Can the Toulouse defence halt the slick, silky smooth Leinster attack, which has so many different moving parts, or will the Dupont-led, slightly chaotic Toulouse brilliance win out?
The respective teams approach the game very differently and last season it was very much the Irishmen who had the upper hand. The French outfit just did not gain any momentum and they were unable to put the hosts’ defence under enough pressure.
It was a big learning curve for their non-internationals, such as Meafou, who were comfortably bested by this experienced Leinster side, but they look better prepared this time around. However, getting that front foot ball through their power game is vital or else Les Rouge et Noir will have no chance at the Aviva Stadium.
Last time they met
What they said
Leinster head coach Cullen believes that the narrative surrounding this match has been “disrespectful” towards their opponents.
Given the strength of the Irishmen’s squad, they are expected to win the Champions Cup – and some believe with room to spare – but the 45-year-old was quick to remind everyone of what happened last season.
“It’s just disrespectful to everyone we play against, isn’t it? I’m sure it’s just winding up the narrative in their minds,” he said.
“I said it about hype, it’s week on week on week. We’re up against the best teams in Europe.
“I don’t think we’ve earned that right yet. We won nothing last year.
“Watching Toulouse at the weekend and you see a team like Stade Français and you see their owner in the stand and he has pumped millions and millions and millions into his team to get to that level because he wants Top 14 success. He wants European success I’m sure. That’s what you’re up against.
“It’s huge business, isn’t it? We’re little old Ireland, small demographics. We’re fighting as a minority sport here for young talent and all the rest. Jeepers…”
Toulouse flanker Willis admits that the start is vital if they are to reach another Champions Cup final and potentially add to their five titles.
“We want to make sure that we put the best account of ourselves out there and put a performance in that we can be proud of,” he said.
“We want to get the result in this more than anything, but I think we need to get our processes right throughout the game and make sure that we’re still in the game.
“Because Leinster come out the blocks quite hard in a lot of their games, the first 25 minutes you always see that.
“If we’re still in a position that we’re happy with after 25-30 minutes, we know we’ve got a game on our hands and can really go after it.
“Their workrate and fitness, their mobile pack as well as the back line – they also have a lot of strength off the first phase. They clearly work very hard on their lineout plays and set plays, tap-and-goes, things like that.
“They’ve got a lot of detail that they layer in, which is pretty impressive. You see the quality throughout, the way they work for each other. They’re very well-drilled as a side. For us, it’s just about breaking that down as much as we can.”
Players to watch
It says everything about Leinster’s squad that they can lose James Lowe and bring in Jordan Larmour for this clash. A hugely talented player, the 25-year-old has had his injury problems over recent times but is a classy back when fully fit and will no doubt fill in nicely for the absent Lowe. Larmour doesn’t quite sniff out opportunities off the shoulders of the half-backs quite as well as his team-mate, but his footwork, balance and pace is out of the top drawer.
Another replacement that needs a big game is fly-half Ross Byrne, who is taking the reins from the injured Sexton. The 37-year-old is of course out for the season so the onus is on Byrne to guide them to Champions Cup and United Rugby Championship success. He has taken a big step forward this season, becoming a reliable back-up for Ireland in the Autumn Nations Series and Six Nations, and this is simply the next step on his journey. Toulouse will look to target him and his response to that will be telling in how the Dubliners go this weekend.
Equally, he will need help from his pack, who have given him an easy ride so far in the competition. James Ryan is in career-best form, Tadhg Furlong remains one of the best tightheads in the world thanks to his work in both the loose and the tight, while Caelan Doris has elevated his game this season, becoming one of the best back-rowers in the sport.
There is no doubt that Toulouse’s forward eight need a mammoth performance, but they do have the personnel to do that. Cyril Baille took time to get back to his best after injury but, by the end of the Six Nations, he was playing some outstanding rugby; scrummaging well and carrying impressively in the loose. He, alongside Emmanuel Meafou, will need to punch holes in the Leinster rearguard as they seek to dominate the gain line.
The one drawback of Meafou’s presence is that it takes away a lineout option, but Thibaud Flament, like Doris, has moved his performances on to the next level over the past few months. His set-piece work is superb but he also excels in the loose and can make a big impact in a variety of ways.
If Flament once again performs well, it makes Antoine Dupont’s job easier, who will inevitably have a big say in the outcome of the match. However, while Dupont makes everything tick, Pita Ahki is arguably the glue in the backline, both from a defensive and attacking standpoint. He is a threat with his footwork and balance, but it’s his passing and decision-making skills which really give him an edge.
Many will quite rightly look to last year’s result as an indicator as to how this match will go, but Toulouse look a better unit this season. Certain players are better prepared this time around, while Leinster are weaker due to absence of Henshaw, Sexton and Lowe. It is a big call but we are backing Les Rouge et Noir to narrowly take it. Toulouse by three points.
2022: Leinster won 40-17 at Aviva Stadium
2019: Leinster won 30-12 at Aviva Stadium
2019: Leinster won 29-13 at RDS Arena
2018: Toulouse won 28-27 at Stade Ernest-Wallon
2011: Leinster won 32-23 at Aviva Stadium
2010: Toulouse won 26-16 at Stade de Toulouse
2008: Leinster won 20-13 at RDS Arena
2007: Toulouse won 33-6 at Stade Ernest-Wallon
2006: Leinster won 41-35 at Stade de Toulouse
Leinster: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Jimmy O’Brien, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan (c), 4 Ross Molony, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 John McKee, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Michael Ala’alatoa, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Harry Byrne, 23 Ciaran Frawley
Toulouse: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Juan Cruz Mallía, 13 Pierre-Louis Barassi, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Matthis Lebel, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Francois Cros, 7 Thibaud Flament, 6 Jack Willis, 5 Emmanuel Meafou, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Dorian Aldegheri, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Rodrigue Neti, 18 David Ainu’u, 19 Alexandre Roumat, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Alban Placines, 22 Paul Graou, 23 Arthur Retiere
Date: Saturday, April 29
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15:00 BST (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce (England), Adam Leal (England)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (England)
READ MORE: Five reasons Toulouse will beat Leinster in Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final
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