Leinster's James Lowe and Romain Ntamack of Toulouse.
Cream of the Crop

Leinster-Toulouse final has the makings of a Champions Cup classic

The 25 May decider will see the competition’s two best teams face-off in London.

THE CHAMPIONS CUP still has its faults, but the competition has developed a handy habit of saving the best until last.

Leinster and La Rochelle served up two brilliant finals over the last two seasons and this year’s pairing of Leinster and Toulouse once again sees the competition’s two best teams face off in the decider.

It should make for a cracker at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on 25 May, with fascinating battles all over the pitch.

For a start, the game will pit arguably the two best scrum-halves in the world against each other. Toulouse maestro Antoine Dupont has held that crown for the last number of years but Jamison Gibson-Park’s stunning form has pushed him into that conversation – with the scrum-half playing another starring role in Saturday’s semi-final defeat of Northampton Saints.

antoine-dupont Dupont had some fine moments against Harlequins. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

That game didn’t turn into the cakewalk which initially appeared to be unfolding at Croke Park but that in itself could prove to be a good thing. Leinster have so often steamrolled their way into European finals before falling short at the last hurdle. The nature of their second half lull against the Saints should sharpen minds and keep everyone on their toes ahead of Toulouse.

The French side will be coming from a similar place having gone 28 second-half minutes without a score in their semi-final defeat of Harlequins. Like Leinster a day previously, Toulouse did most of the damage in the first half – leading 31-12 at the break – playing some scintillating rugby across the opening 40 minutes.

When Toulouse are flying, it’s hard to see how anyone can live with them. Recent Champions Cup finals have proved hard to call but it was interesting to hear both Sam Warburton and Brian O’Driscoll name Ugo Mola’s men as their favourites during TNT Sports’ post-match coverage yesterday.

The French side have enjoyed a higher billing in recent years but have waltzed into the final without generating too much hype.

caelan-doris-applauds-the-fans-after-the-game Leinster were relieved to get over the line against Northampton. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

They’ve fallen short in this competition over the last few years but still know what it takes to win finals rugby – pipping La Rochelle in a thrilling Top 14 final last year.

When it comes to the European Cup their history is unmatched. No club has won the competition more times than the five-time champions [1996, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2021], but Leinster have an opportunity to equal that record when they meet in London, having only put their first star on the jersey in 2009.

“Toulouse are the standard bearers of the competition really,” said Leo Cullen.

“Going back to the start of the competition, they were the ones out of the blocks first in terms of professionalism and you could see the setup they had when the game went professional first.

They were light years ahead of us, let’s be honest. We sort of feel that we’ve been chasing them every since.”

As they prepare to play in their third Champions Cup final in as many years – and fifth in the last seven – Leinster are firmly on familiar ground.

The players have spoken about learning from their previous final experiences and they do feel like a different team this year, with Jacques Nienaber’s defensive system taking the spotlight previously held by their free-flowing attacking game. 

Last season Leinster had 15 points to spare in their round of 16 win against Ulster, before beating Leicester Tigers by 31 points in the quarter-finals and Toulouse by 19 in the semis. A year previously, the margins of victory were 41 points [over two legs v Connacht in the round of 16], nine points [v Leicester, quarter-finals] and 23 points [v Toulouse, semi-finals].

Leinster have still notched up some big scorelines across the campaign but have also had to edge some tighter encounters. They took much encouragement from grinding out a win at La Rochelle in the Champions Cup pool stages before digging deep to claim an important late bonus-point away at Leicester. On Saturday they had to produce some big defensive plays to hold off Northampton’s second-half surge.

Those experiences might just stand to them. The all-action attacking rugby hasn’t been as prominent in their performances, but there’s been an added steeliness to some of their defensive play – even if Northampton let them off the hook with some poor execution at Croke Park.

Nienaber has been a huge addition, with his experience around the mentality needed to win finals rugby just as valuable as his expertise around the defensive side of the game.

It will be fascinating to see how they now approach the 25 May final.

While the starting XV has previously been rather predictable, this season Leinster have drifted toward a more ‘horses for courses’ approach. Will Connors was drafted in for his chop-tackling qualities in both games against La Rochelle but then didn’t even make the matchday 23 for Northampton. 

jacques-nienaber-with-ryan-baird Jacques Nienaber has made a big impact since joining Leinster. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

There’s been rotation in the second row, too, where James Ryan’s absence has been felt. Leo Cullen backed the physicality of Jason Jenkins to start alongside Joe McCarthy against La Rochelle, before reverting to Ross Molony’s superior lineout skills for Northampton.

Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan were both pushing for inclusion last weekend and would be welcome returns for Toulouse.

The Northampton game also saw Leinster move back to a 5/3 bench split, having gone for the punch of a 6/2 split against Ronan O’Gara’s men. There’s plenty of power in this Toulouse team so 6/2 might be the favoured option for London.

Toulouse have the athletes to seriously test Leinster’s power game and the runners to stretch their defence – the province looked short on backline speed when Northampton started to find space in the Croke Park backfield.

Before that, Leinster will take in URC games against the Ospreys and Ulster. Having sent a shadow squad to South Africa for the two URC fixtures leading into Northampton, Cullen says they will take a difference approach as part of their preparations for London.

With Leinster falling to second in the URC table after back-to-back losses in South Africa, the next two weekends will be used to keep some key players sharp and notch up wins as  Cullen’s men chase a URC-Champions Cup double. 

“We need to concentrate on the URC now for the next couple of weeks, so we’ll be picking strong teams” Cullen said.

“For us, we just need to focus on ourselves and how we improve over the next few weeks.

“There’s lots of areas we can improve upon so making sure the players have the right mentality in who they attack training and go after improvements and hopefully that will lead to a positive performances. 

“But it’s a final. It’s on the day. So it’s making sure that we are the best versions of ourselves.”

The countdown is on.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel