Toulouse's forwards will be licking their lips ahead of this one
The French will have studied with interest videos of Leinster's recent outings, says Jim Glennon
I t was a trip to Toulouse in 2006, in Michael Cheika's debut season, which belatedly announced Leinster's entrance to the big time after 11 seasons in the competition. Now, as we near the end of Cheika's final season in charge, the European champions will spend the May Bank Holiday weekend grappling with les rouges et noirs, the undoubted aristocrats of European rugby.
For French or foreign foe, winning in Toulouse is always a mammoth task. Munster have been to Le Stadium at this stage of the tournament and returned home with a full appreciation of the difficulties involved.
Leinster and Toulouse have crossed swords in Toulouse on no fewer than four occasions, with that epic 2006 quarter-final being Leinster's only victory. The resounding 33-6 hammering inflicted on them at the Toulouse home ground, Stade Ernest Wallon, two seasons ago has undoubtedly left its mark. In fact, Guy Noves, the remarkable Toulouse coach, has seen his team score in excess of 30 points on each of Leinster's visits south.
Noves is remarkable, not only for his longevity as Toulouse coach -- I recall opposing him as long ago as 1997 when some of the names on his team-sheet were N'tamack, Deylaud, Delaigue, Califano, Tournaire, and Pelous -- he is remarkable also for his successes, maintaining his club's place at the summit of the French and European rugby firmaments.
Having been beaten by Bourgoin last weekend, Toulouse went into the last series of games yesterday in fifth but their win over Castres -- who had occupied that coveted fourth sport -- at home saw them sneak into the top four.
Leinster aren't exactly in stellar form either, following up their poor performance in Galway with another defeat, this time for the shadow team in Glasgow on Friday. They do, however, have the advantage of an extended run-in to this game, with none of those who started the Clermont match having started in Glasgow. Toulouse, on the other hand, will have the additional challenge of forging an adequate recovery from yesterday's bruiser with Castres.
Notwithstanding that, Toulouse, and particularly their forwards, will be licking their lips at the prospect of squaring up to Leinster. They will have studied the videos of the somewhat fortunate win over Clermont and the loss to Connacht and made the obvious deduction that the best way to deal with the champions is to beat the bejaysus out of them in the first half. And, as Willie Duggan once famously said, if that works then go out in the second half and do precisely the same again.
Leinster have had little luck this season with their health and major doubts still remain around the chances of two key backs, Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney, being fit to play. Leinster will be very much holding their breath on the fitness of the pair, with Sexton in particular vital to their hopes. Leinster in a European semi-final without Sexton would be something of a two-legged stool. He is pivotal to his team's operations, irrespective of his place-kicking form. His probable replacement, Shaun Berne, is neither an all-round out-half of anything like Sexton's quality, nor a place-kicker of the standard required for this level. To include a place-kicker in
the event of Sexton's absence (probably Fergus McFadden) would require significant re-jigging of the backline, with either he or D'Arcy possibly moving to the wing. Whatever about the uncertainty of the make-up of the team, there remains one certainty. To have any chance of registering their second win in Le Stadium, the forwards will have to front up for what may well be one of the ultimate physical confrontations of their careers. The worst they must achieve is parity in the physical exchanges.
If they manage that, and if Sexton is fit to play, they have a chance. But they are big 'ifs'. Obviously, at this stage, we all hope that Stade de France will join New York's Polo Grounds as the only venues outside Ireland to host an all-Ireland final. Toulouse are the biggest stumbling block to this and, I'm afraid, it could just be a bridge too far for Leinster.