Four-star generals lock horns
Two of Europe’s most successful clubs meet in what promises to be a mouthwatering clash at the RDS as the injury-ravaged champions Leinster host a star-studded Toulouse side, who have rediscovered their best form and are now eyeing a return to former glories
For all of the banality surrounding players and coaches alike insisting that they never look beyond the upcoming game, a rare slip of the guard from Leo Cullen yesterday told you everything you needed to know about who and what has been dominating the majority of Leinster’s focus.
Since being beaten by Toulouse back in October, the champions have been gunning for revenge and while they have twice swatted aside the challenge of Bath since, this is the one they have been building towards.
This season’s Heineken Champions Cup may have been something of a slow-burner up to this point, but the sight alone of the four stars above both the Leinster and Toulouse crests is enough to fully ignite Europe’s premier competition.
18,500 supporters will cram into the RDS for the early-afternoon kick-off. Thousands of others were left disappointed at having to miss out as they were hoping that the mouthwatering encounter would be moved to the Aviva Stadium, but there is at least some comfort in knowing that the game is available on free-to-air stations Virgin Media and Channel 4 as well as BT Sport.
Such has been the anticipation surrounding this clash that if both teams were to meet again in the knockout stages or indeed, in May’s decider at St James’ Park, few neutrals would be surprised and even fewer would be disappointed.
“For us, we have been very fixated on this game for a while,” Cullen admitted.
“I know we’ve had three big interpros over the course of the Christmas period but this is the one that is, not at the back of our mind, because it’s closer to the front of our minds. It’s an unbelievable challenge.”
That Leinster have arrived at what is effectively a pool decider without nine of their internationals hampers their chances, especially considering an in-form Toulouse side have arrived in Dublin fully locked and loaded.
The French outfit are unbeaten in 12 games, including that thrilling win over Leinster at the Stade Ernest Wallon and after recovering from an early hiccup in their pool opener against Bath in which Freddie Burns had his moment to forget, Toulouse have looked back to their best.
The return of the all-singing and all-dancing Jerome Kaino adds plenty of ballast from No 8, while the Toulouse backline is littered with explosive potential.
Since switching from full-back to out-half, which in turn has allowed the evergreen Maxime Medard to provide the spark from the back-field, Thomas Ramos (23) has brought plenty of stability and energy to the No 10 jersey. Nineteen-year-old Romain Ntamack, son of legendary former French international Émile, will act as a second playmaker outside Ramos and he has the ability to unlock this Leinster defence.
So too do Toulouse’s electrifying wingers Yoann Huget and Cheslin Kolbe, who will come up against Dave Kearney for whom this will be a massive test.
Injury problems have not helped his cause, but Kearney has been out of favour this season and with the news that Cian Kelleher is expected to rejoin Leinster in the summer, the 29-year-old will be eager to prove a point.
So much is justifiably made of Leinster’s remarkable strength in depth, yet that will be pushed to the limit today.
Their three main leaders in the backline, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney, will be sorely missed, but, as Cullen pointed out, this is a chance for the likes of Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin to stand up and be counted.
“Yeah, there’s a good few guys that are unavailable, but if you look at the names there’s still a ton of experience there,” Cullen maintained.
“Lukey (McGrath) and Ross have played so many games together. Ross has been so key really. Everything that’s been good, he’s had such a big involvement in.
“Dave has just been a bit unlucky with injuries. Now someone else is out and he gets his window to come in and play.
“Jordan (Larmour), he’s quite exciting from 15 and Adam has been going well. Rory and Garry (Ringrose) played together against Bath in the Aviva. In the terms of the team that started against Bath at the Aviva, the backline is quite similar in many ways, Ross actually finished that game. Dave is probably the only one that’s come in.”
Even still, Leinster’s backline will be tested throughout what promises to be a ferocious encounter that Cullen will look to his pack to set the platform for.
The front-row of Cian Healy, Seán Cronin and Tadhg Furlong is the only positional group that Leinster have not had hampered by injury and, crucially, the Ireland trio have enough quality to get the upper hand at scrum-time.
The loss of Devin Toner is key, however. So often under-appreciated in blue and green, the towering lock’s absence will be felt, particularly at the set-piece.
James Ryan has recently started calling lineouts, while Scott Fardy has also done so when Toner has been missing. Given the Wallaby’s vast experience, Cullen may look to Fardy to call the shots.
The loss of Dan Leavy’s abrasiveness is a major blow too, particularly as his injury significantly lessens Leinster’s options from the bench, where Ed Byrne is surprisingly preferred to Jack McGrath.
“It’s a reasonably settled group,” Cullen continued. “The pack without Dev and Dan and Jack McGrath, it was touch and go with him. He got through some minutes last week, but Ed has been going really well.
“The coaches have full confidence in him and again, he came off the bench against Bath in both games. He’s building up his experience all the time and it’s really, really competitive at loosehead.
“The group are working away and this group will represent well because it means a lot to them.
“There’s lots coming up over the course of the next couple of weeks, and beyond the next few months, and even beyond that. There’s a lot of motivation for guys.
“The group have had a good lead-in to this game. Some guys didn’t play last week, when they were able to look ahead at some of the images.
“They’re nice and clear in their minds as to the threats they’re going to face. They faced them up close away in round two.
“They’d seen some of the images before, but when you’re in the heat of the game, I’m not sure did they take us by surprise, but definitely there was an intensity that took us a bit of time to get up to speed with – that’s the best way of saying it.
“We should be well-prepped now. We’ve seen it up close, we understand what it’s like. Now it’s up to us to impose ourselves on the game and make life uncomfortable for any team that comes to the RDS.
“We have a certain way we want to play always, so we’re pressurising any team that comes here when we have the ball.
“The flip-side is when they have the ball, it’s making sure we’re putting pressure on them the whole time, so life is difficult for them. That’s the plan at least.”
Despite the fact that both teams are likely to emerge from this pool, Leinster will not for a second consider finish as runners-up, simply because they know the importance of earning a home quarter-final.
From that end, winning at home in the pool stages is always non-negotiable, as Cullen stressed.
All of the pressure today is on Leinster, but even without several of their key men, they have enough quality to conjure up what would be another special result in their ever-growing storied history.