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Stars appear to be aligned for 'XXL' Leinster but Furlong injury is a concern

Toulouse were blown away by Leinster’s ability to play at high tempo in attack.

Leinster applaud their fans at the Aviva Stadium.
Leinster applaud their fans at the Aviva Stadium.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WALKING AWAY FROM the Aviva Stadium on a fairly balmy evening after watching Leinster put 40 points on Champions Cup holders Toulouse, it was hard to ignore the sense that this is their year.

In truth, many people had felt that before yesterday’s impressive semi-final showing. 

The stars appear to have aligned for Leinster to earn a fifth European star, although we have to point out that Leo Cullen’s side have had a great influence on how those stars sit in the sky.

For starters, they are a slick, well-coached rugby team. We know that Toulouse were fatigued coming into the semi-final after going for 100 minutes and penalties with Munster but even with that qualifier in place, they were still dominated by Leinster.

“They’re a very cohesive team and they produce fast, aggressive rugby,” is how Toulouse captain Julien Marchand put it after his side’s 40-17 defeat in Dublin.

“They know their system, with Sexton linking very well with his forwards. After a while, you make small mistakes and you go backwards, it’s complicated to defend. We struggled against them.

“They gave us… not necessarily a lesson in all areas, that’s not true, but in the game, yes, they beat us well, we have to admit. Kudos to them.”

Leinster’s attack yesterday was unstoppable at times. Nearly all of their forwards are comfortable passing the ball, staying square to the defence to attract defenders in before releasing tip-on or pullback passes. They can carry too. Their backs have plenty of cutting edge, while halfbacks Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton make good decisions. Even the less-heralded players are superb, with Ross Molony arguably the standout performer yesterday.

“He leads the forwards really well, both him and James [Ryan],” said Cullen. “It’s a good combination.

ross-molony-celebrates-after-the-game Ross Molony was superb for Leinster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Ross came up with a couple of huge moments, a couple of big lineout steals, and he’s getting better all the time.”

There might be some scrum and maul defence concerns ahead of the Champions Cup final in two weekends’ time, but Leinster have previously shown quality in those areas too.

The ankle injury to Tadhg Furlong – who was brilliant for 16 minutes – is admittedly a big concern ahead of that decider in Marseille on 28 May and though Cullen downplayed fears over the Wexford man, his presence is simply crucial for the final.

Any team would be weaker without him and Leinster will hope that ankle issue clears up quickly.

Handily, Leinster can rest their entire first-choice players next weekend when they face Munster at the Aviva in their final regular-season URC game. Leinster have already secured top spot in the league, so can look forward to a home quarter-final and home semi-final if they reach that stage too.

They’ll find out tomorrow who they are to face in the Champions Cup final – La Rochelle or Racing 92 – but either way, Cullen knows those two French sides have massive Top 14 clashes ahead next weekend.

Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are currently seventh in the Top 14, just below the play-off spots, and face Stade Français at home next weekend, while Racing are fourth but face a tough outing away to Montpellier. They simply can’t take many risks with only two regular-season games remaining in the French league.

In another potential advantage,  if La Rochelle reach the Champions Cup final they are also set to be missing mammoth lock Will Skelton, who has been excellent against Leinster several times but is injured for the rest of the season.

It will all help Leinster’s cause as their front-liners rest up. In fairness, Cullen and co. have fully earned the right with their continued excellence in the URC.

As we know, Leinster’s depth means they don’t have to play their Ireland internationals all the time – far from it. Their key men stayed at home in Dublin while the second and third-sting players undertook the recent two-week tour of South Africa in the URC.

james-ryan-celebrates-with-his-family-after-the-game James Ryan with family after the win over Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And as they look towards the Champions Cup final, this Leinster team look like they have been managed very well in a physical and mental sense.

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“If we take the average for the French players and the Irish players for the season, we play double the games per season,” is how Toulouse coach Ugo Mola put it yesterday.

Leinster still believe their peak is ahead of them, even after that comprehensive win over Toulouse yesterday.

“They produced an XXL performance,” said Mola, “even if we weren’t at our best after playing a lot of away games and with little collective dynamic. However, the best team won. Leinster’s speed was remarkable.”

That tempo was something Toulouse struggled to live with and Mola suggested that an average ball-in-play time of 32 minutes in the Top 14 was not conducive to competing against the likes of Leinster.

“It doesn’t prepare us for what we experienced here. In the European Cup, it’s around 40 minutes of ball-in-play time.”

Leinster can play at speed but it’s not the only tool they have in their armoury. With a nice blend of experience from the likes of Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Josh van der Flier, and Ryan, as well as relatively fresh energy from players such as Caelan Doris, Jimmy O’Brien, and Rónan Kelleher, they’ve got an intoxicating blend in their squad.

La Rochelle or Racing might lay down their own marker today but right now, it feels like Leinster are on track to claim that much-desired fifth European crown.

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Murray Kinsella

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