Rugby fans were treated to a wonderful spectacle yesterday as Saracens earned a place in the Champions Cup final in what was a titanic semi-final encounter, and fans could be in for even more of a treat as Leinster, aiming to retain their title, face the season’s surprise success story in the shape of Toulouse at the Aviva this afternoon.
The pair have an illustrious history and we’ve already got plenty of form to go on, as the pair met twice in the Pool stages. The first of those was one of the best encounters that the competition has seen in recent seasons as the French side won 28-27, whilst the second, whilst a ferocious encounter, wasn’t quite as exhilarating as Leinster won 29-13 at the RDS.
That performance – which came minus Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy, Devin Toner and Sean O’Brien – will provide much comfort for a tricky assignment but the margin of victory, whoever is on top today, is likely to be considerably closer.
Leinster beat Ulster 40-7 in the Pro 14 in January yet in march the pair played out a pulsating encounter in the quarter-finals which Leinster won 21-18, a result that might have been different had Jacob Stockdale not made the very costly decision of trying to place the ball down inside the in-goal area instead of placing himself over the ball.
Toulouse’s rejuvenation this season has been a thing of beauty for the fans who missed their glory days at the top of European rugby, and also for Top 14 fans who love to see free flowing rugby. They have dominated domestically, leading Clermont by eight points this season, an achievement that is even more impressive when one considers that the runners up have not had to cope with the pressures of Champions Cup rugby too.
Since their 29-10 defeat at the RDS they’ve won 10 of their 11 games with the exception being a 25-10 defeat at Toulon two weeks ago. In that run they have won on the road at Stade Francais, Champions Cup finalists La Rochelle, and Racing 92 twice, including in a pulsating quarter-final victory that came despite a red card in the 22nd minute for Zack Holmes.
In his absence, Antoine Dupont was magnificent, scoring two tries and providing impossible to handle for a defense that had a man advantage, although the movement of the Toulouse backline simple proved to be too much for Racing. Dupont has arguably been the best scrumhalf in the Northern Hemisphere but Sofiane Guitoune is a constant moving target in midfield and he has livewires in the shape of Thomas Ramos and Yoann Huget to hit. This is without getting to Cheslin Kolbe, whom even Leinster couldn’t stop from scoring a try.
The hosts have been solely focused on this game since they edged past Ulster, with much changed teams sent out to draw against Treviso and lost to Glasgow at The RDS over the last two weeks, giving Joe Cullen a fresh hand to pick from despite a brutal Six Nations campaign. Johnny Sexton, James Lowe, Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw are amongst some of the big names to come back, and they will start alongside fellow internationals Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Seán O’Brien, and Jack Conan.
The key to Leinster’s 29-10 success in January compared to their narrow defeat on French soil was the much more controlled and powerful game that they operated, going from carry to carry with Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, and Jack Conan especially giving nothing away and taking the speed out of the game.
Toulouse have made some changes to respond to that, namely putting Pita Ahki in midfield and Joe Tekori in the backrow, whilst also operating a 6-2 split, and the Frenchmen could well make this closer than the last meeting between the two. A seven-point handicap feels about right still, but we could be in for an entertaining treat here.
Munster and Saracens kicked seven bells out of each other in defence before the hosts eventually opened up and that game ended up passing the points line (Saracens won 32-16). It’s not impossible today’s game could follow the same pattern.
2 pts Over 46.5 points (5/6 Paddy Power)
Kick off: 3.15pm, Sunday. Venue: Aviva Stadium.
On TV: Virgin Media TV, Channel 4 and BT Sport all showing in HD:
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Seán O’Brien, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Bent, Scott Fardy, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
Toulouse: Thomas Ramos; Yoann Huget, Sofiane Guitoune, Pita Ahki, Cheslin Kolbe; Antoine Dupont, Sébastien Bézy; Clément Castets, Peato Mauvaka, Charlie Faumuina; Richie Arnold, Richie Gray; Rynhardt Elstadt, Joe Tekori, Jerome Kaino (capt).
Replacements: Guillaume Marchand, Cyril Baille, Maks Van Dyk, Selevasio Tolofua, Piula Faasalele, Francois Cros, Romain Ntamack, Maxime Médard.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)