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Dublin: 11°C Sunday 25 October 2020

'Big players rise to these big occasions': Leinster ready for toughest test

Jack Conan says there is a mix of excitement and tension within the dressing room ahead of Toulouse showdown.

MATCHES BETWEEN THESE two great European titans tend to be special and memorable occasions, most recently the October rendezvous which ebbed and flowed before Toulouse emerged as one-point winners.

Not only have the two clubs shared eight European titles between them, but the winner has alternated in their last nine meetings, with the Top 14 side edging five of those encounters to Leinster’s four.

Garry Ringrose tackled by Antoine Dupont and Yoann Huget Leinster and Toulouse share eight European crowns between them. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Saturday’s renewal of battle lines at the RDS has all the makings of another classic, with a sell-out crowd set to descend on the Ballsbridge venue for the Saturday lunchtime kick-off which has effectively become a Pool 1 decider.

The excitement in which Stuart Lancaster spoke about the prospect of coming up against the French heavyweights yesterday was matched by the animation in Jack Conan’s tone as the pair looked ahead to what promises to be one of the great RDS afternoons. 

Leinster’s season moves up a couple of gears from here, with a mixture of excitement and tension in the air inside the province’s UCD headquarters, given the magnitude of the game and what’s at stake.

The defending European champions, although boasting a strong record against French opposition in Dublin [22 wins in their last 24 games], know they will need to be at their very best to inflict a first defeat of the Champions Cup campaign on Toulouse.

Preparations hardly got off to an ideal start with both Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner sitting out training early in the week, and it is widely acknowledged that Leo Cullen’s side will need to get everything right on the day to topple the Pool 1 leaders.

Make no mistake about it, however — these are the occasions the players relish and given Leinster’s re-emergence as Europe’s dominant force over the last 18 months, will go into Saturday with every confidence they can produce the performance required.

“It really is our biggest test in Europe to date,” Conan says. “Even last year as well. It’s great we have them at home and we are excited. Big players rise to these big occasions.

“People are excited about the week ahead and what needs to be done. There’s a tension around the place today and an excitement about how much hard work is going to be required to get the win on Saturday.

“So we’re starting today building for it and it is going to be a great week.”

Toulouse are one of just three clubs to have won all four games so far this season, along with Saracens and Racing 92, and will arrive in Dublin with their star-studded artillery in tow. 

The four-time winners are on a 12-game unbeaten run — including last October’s 28-27 over Leinster — having rediscovered the swagger and style they played with during their position at the top of European club rugby.

Jack Conan All smiles: Conan is ready for Saturday's game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ugo Mola’s side are on a run of four consecutive victories in Europe, the last time they enjoyed a longer winning run was between December 2009 and January 2011 (W11), during which they lifted the European Cup for the fourth time in 2010.

“The first time we played them this year we spoke about their culture and the history of the club, everything they have achieved and just how much it would mean to them to win at home,” Conan continues.

“They obviously showed that on the day. These last few days we have been trying to speak of that again and in the last few days it has been building in everyone’s minds again since that loss away. We know the opportunity that exists in this game and we can’t let it pass us by again.

“Having said that, they are a better team now since we played them last time. They have threats all across the park. They have some fantastic ball-players, some electric talent especially in the midfield and the backfield.”

Everywhere you look, Toulouse have world-class players at their disposal. From Jerome Kaino, to Antoine Dupont, to Joe Tekori, to Charlie Faumuina, to Romain Ntamack, to Maxime Medard, to Cheslin Kolbe, to leading points scorer Thomas Ramos. The list is endless, the danger men coming from all angles.

For Conan, the challenge of coming up against All Black Kaino — who missed the round two game through suspension — will be a stern test, while South African Rynhardt Elstadt is also in excellent form in the back row.

“He’s an incredible athlete,” the Leinster number eight says of Kaino. “I mean, he’s 35 now at this stage and it’s great for him to be still competing at the top level of rugby at that age. I’m 26 and Jesus if I got to that age it would be a miracle.

“So it’s going to be a massive test and I’m looking forward to going up against him. He has shown quality over so many years, whether it is at six or eight. He’s a physical presence across the park, either on the ball or defensively. It just adds to their strength and quality in the back row.

“We have been chopping and changing in the last few weeks so guys can get experience, so over the next few days we have to get into our flow and make sure that on Saturday we are at our absolute best.”

Both Cullen and Lancaster have warned their players that Toulouse are an even bigger threat this weekend than they were back at the start of the campaign, and Leinster are wary of just how clinical they can be at ripping sides apart.

To that end, the hosts will look to implement a similar game plan to the one they employed at the Stade Ernest Wallon, but bring more accuracy and quality in possession to the contest. The message has been clear: anything loose will be punished.

“I think for us when we talk about starting quick and being accurate is making sure we look after the ball and don’t force the play and, if we don’t have the ball, to make sure our discipline is 100%,” Conan explains. 

Jack Conan The Ireland international pictured at UCD this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Even Toulouse away a few months ago I think it was 6-0 after 10 minutes and obviously we know how tight the game finished so if it wasn’t for those few errors in judgement it would have been a different scoreline so it’s massively important and something we’ve been speaking about for weeks and I think it’s really grown within the team and will be implemented this week.

“Obviously we can’t be within ourselves and not go out and play the Leinster brand which has brought us to where we are now, the defending champions.

“We’ll look to play on top of them but we just need to be accurate and make sure we’re not forcing things, to take our time and build phases, to work them hard. They’ve got some big lads, a physical pack so we’re going to try to really up the tempo and make sure we’re making them work as hard as we can and giving them a lot of different phases and shapes in attack to defend and really put them under a lot of pressure.

“We’ll be playing high tempo and making smart decisions, whether to throw the offload or kick and put the ball through and put them back under pressure.

It’s going to be a big challenge but we need to find the balance between looking after the ball and making sure we’re playing enough to put them under pressure.

With the sold-out signs in place for weeks, and a capacity crowd set to create a big-game atmosphere from early morning, Conan hopes home advantage can be the difference for Leinster as they look to regain control of Pool 1.

“Even if you look at the last few weeks, the sell-outs we have had and the amount of numbers we have had for the games against Ulster, Connacht and Bath,” he adds.

“The people are coming to support us week in, week out. They make themselves heard.

“It’s different in a sense to what it is like in the south of France. But we appreciate everyone who comes to the RDS and makes themselves heard. It definitely adds to the atmosphere, it means so much to the team. It’s part of our culture, our history and something that is always going to be with us and continue to grow as the team grows.”

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Ryan Bailey

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