Toulouse determined to return to where they once belonged
In a battle between the two most successful sides in Champions Cup history, Toulouse must not be too loose. French rugby's aristocrats have rediscovered their joie de vivre this season but sometimes they get carried away.
Last weekend offered an example. They eventually sealed their place in the Top 14 play-offs with four rounds to go but not before conceding 44 points to Clermont Auvergne in front of 32,000 spectators at Le Stadium who were treated to 10 tries in a match that was decided by the final one, four minutes from time.
"I think it is fair to say that, if we concede 44 points to Leinster, we will not likely be appearing in next month's final," says Richie Gray, the Scottish international second-row who joined Toulouse from Castres in 2016. "We got out of jail and the feeling in the dressing room afterwards was one of relief. We were excited to still be at the top of the league but knew we would need to sharpen up this weekend."
Both sides have won the tournament four times. Toulouse's last triumph came in 2010, though, 12 months after Leinster's first win, and their most recent appearance in a semi-final was the following year, when they lost to Leinster 32-23 at today's venue, the Aviva Stadium.
"The league is not the bigger priority," says the 29-year-old when asked if Toulouse are living up to the French stereotype of putting the Top 14 before Europe. "We have not won the title since 2012 but this remains a club with huge ambitions. We want to do well in both competitions and one does not take precedence over the other. I can't speak for other French clubs."
Toulouse's revival has been timely at a moment when French rugby is, internationally, at its lowest point since they became a force in the 1950s, with one top-three finish in the last eight Six Nations. Their style of play, based on having a go from anywhere and making improbable offloads, has been noted by Les Bleus head coach Jacques Brunel, who has injected his squad with youthful enthusiasm. Nice attack, shame about the defence.
Domestically, the French game is buoyant. The last round of the Top 14 attracted more than 130,000 spectators, boosted by Toulouse playing at Le Stadium. The average gate was 18,620, a figure none of the host Premiership sides reached in averaging 12,300. The average in the Pro14 was 6,815 with Leinster attracting 30 per cent of the total for their match against Glasgow. Only 21 of the 154 matches in the Top 14 this season have attracted a crowd below 10,000.
"We have been playing some good stuff," Gray says. "We take confidence from our season so far and we know we can beat Leinster, having done so in October. The return match was a different matter, a day when we could not break free from their defensive shackles. We know we are going to have to be at our best, in defence and attack.
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"Leinster are arguably the best team in Europe and we know the challenge that faces us. I do not think it is unfair that a supposedly neutral ground is one they are used to playing on. It is a huge privilege to play at the Aviva Stadium and we are happy to do so. The boys are looking forward to it."
Gray is a natural fit for Toulouse. After he broke into the Scotland side at the start of the decade, he was likened to French second-rows of the past, a swashbuckling forward at his happiest gambolling around the field, the ball in one hand with the other used to fend off would-be tacklers, and comfortable offloading.
"We have a number of young players coming through," Gray says. "They do not have any fear and just want to go out and play. It makes it a great club to be at but it also involves a lot of hard work. The coaches leave no stone unturned, very thorough in the way they prepare us. The key against Leinster will be being clinical. We were not when we were in Dublin in January and we paid for it."
Leinster are close to full strength, with Johnny Sexton making his first appearance since the Six Nations. All of their players bar one - New Zealander James Lowe - have played for Ireland this season. Toulouse, as they did against Clermont, have picked the France scrumhalf Antoine Dupont at flyhalf with Romain Ntamack on the bench, along with the 32-year-old wing Maxime Médard, the one survivor from their victory in the 2010 final against Biarritz in Paris.
"We are level on four final victories with Leinster but it is about trying to go as far as we can this year rather than getting ahead of them in terms of titles," Gray says. "It would be nice, though."
- Leinster v Toulouse, BT Sport, VM1 and C4, 1.30
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