Skip to content
This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies. You can change your settings or learn more here.
OK

Injury-hit Leinster set for biggest test of their Champions Cup defence

Leo Cullen’s side are not at full strength but will need to produce a big performance against Toulouse at the RDS this afternoon.
Jan 12th 2019, 7:01 AM 13,581 31

BIG EUROPEAN GAMES don’t come much bigger than this, particularly in January. 

The sense of anticipation has been building for weeks now, but the complexion of this heavyweight and high-stakes tête-à-tête has changed irrevocably in the last 24 hours, the balance tipping towards Toulouse. 

Leo Cullen reinforced his complete trust in the side he has selected for this afternoon’s crucial Heineken Champions Cup game, but there is no way of dressing it up — losing players of the experience and calibre of Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner, Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy is a considerable blow and heightens Leinster’s task further.

Leinsters Garry Ringrose  is tackled by Toulouse's Antoine Dupont Leinster and Toulouse are set for a heavyweight clash. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The defending European champions’ preparations have been hit by an injury crisis which worsened as the week progressed, and Leinster are by no means at full strength for their stiffest test of the season, which will now also provide the truest examination of the province’s renowned and unrivalled reservoir of talent.

Toulouse arrive in Dublin not only as one of three clubs unbeaten in this year’s pool stages, but as the in-form side in the competition, with October’s victory over Leinster arguably acting as the catalyst for their must-talked about renaissance. 

The Top 14 outfit have rediscovered their swagger and joie de vivre, the style of play so central to their four European crowns, and pitch up for this round five clash [KO 1pm, Virgin Media/Channel 4/BT Sport] on a 12-game unbeaten run.

They are also fully locked, loaded and ready to unleash their full armoury as they bid to raid the RDS and send out a serious statement of intent by toppling the holders for the second time in the pool stages.

As it stands, Toulouse lead Pool 1 by two points from Leinster heading into this afternoon’s head-to-head meeting of the two most successful clubs in European rugby history, as the two titans battle it out for pool supremacy, qualification for the quarter-finals and an altogether more comfortable route towards the final in front of a sold-out RDS crowd.

Although depleted by injuries to key personnel, all of Cullen’s starting XV boasts international caps, while 20 of the matchday 23 have come through the province’s academy system. Leinster don’t do weak sides.

But this is a huge challenge in a game they dare not lose, and one which has now taken on even greater significance for those entrusted with such responsibility in the absence of five Lions and two Grand Slam winners.

Ross Byrne’s credentials as Sexton’s deputy have never been questioned, as the 23-year-old has consistently and excellently stepped up in the number 10 jersey, but running the show on this stage, against a star-studded Toulouse outfit, is the biggest test of his mettle. Leinster need a big performance from the former St Michael’s man. 

“He played the home game against Montpellier and played the away game against Montpellier,” Cullen said.

Ross Byrne It's a big afternoon in the 10 jersey for Ross Byrne. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“If you remember the Exeter game at the Aviva last year and he comes on after two minutes of the game and steers us around the pitch.

“Ross has a tonne of experience, he has a couple of Ireland caps under his belt as well. Again, it’s just another step in his progression. He leads the team well, he’s a very clear understanding of what’s expected and how we want to play the game. So no issues with Ross, he’s been fantastic.”

It’s a big afternoon, too, for Jordan Larmour at fullback, ditto Adam Byrne on the right wing and Dave Kearney on the left, and the midfield pairing of Rory O’Loughlin and Garry Ringrose.

Given the arsenal of attacking talent in a lethal Toulouse backline, including Maxime Medard, Cheslin Kolbe, Yoann Huget and the leading points scorer in this season’s Champions Cup, Thomas Ramos, this will be a particularly big appraisal of Leinster’s defence without experienced leaders Sexton, Kearney and Robbie Henshaw.

As James Lowe, Fergus McFadden and Joe Tomane are unavailable and Barry Daly is not registered in the European squad, Kearney is set for just his fourth appearance in the last three months and first European game since Glasgow Warriors in October 2017. How he and Byrne marshal and defend their wide channels will be crucial.

While the loss of Toner and Leavy is far from ideal for such a big game, Scott Fardy and Josh van der Flier are more than able deputies and Cullen has been able to name a strong pack, which will provide some reassurance for Leinster supporters making the mid-morning pilgrimage to the Ballsbridge venue. 

The Leinster head coach was assuredly calm during Friday’s pre-match press conference, insisting he is not concerned by the fact his side is missing a raft of expected starters. 

“Yeah, there’s a good few guys that are unavailable, but if you look at the names there’s still a tonne of experience there,” Cullen said. 

“Lukey [McGrath] and Ross have played so many games together. Ross has been so key really. Everything’s that’s been good, he’s had such a big involvement in.

“Dave has just been a bit unlucky with injuries. Now someone else is out and he gets his window to come in and play. Jordan, he’s quite exciting from 15 and Adam has been going well. Rory and Garry played together against Bath in the Aviva.

“In terms of the team that started against Bath at the Aviva, the backline is quite similar in many ways, Ross actually finished that game. Dave is probably the only one that’s come in.

“It’s a reasonably settled group. Jack McGrath, it was touch and go with him. He got through some minutes last week, but Ed [Byrne] has been going really. The coaches have full confidence in him and, again, he came off the bench against Bath in both games. He’s building up his experience all the time and it’s really, really competitive at loosehead.

The group are working away and this group will represent us well because it means a lot to them. There’s lots coming up over the course of the next couple of weeks, and beyond the next few months, and even beyond that. There’s a lot of motivation for guys.

Leinster can also lean on their strong home record, having won each of their last 11 European games in Dublin, between the RDS and the Aviva Stadium in a run stretching back to December 2015. 

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking during Friday's press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

In addition, the province have won 22 of their last 24 games when hosting French opposition, while Toulouse have lost each of their last four games away to Irish provinces, with three of those defeats coming by margins of more than 20 points.

History certainly favours Leinster, although neither side have racked up two consecutive wins over the other in previous European action, where the stats are currently stacked 5-4 in favour of Toulouse.

“If you want to be serious about this competition, you have to win all your home games for sure,” Cullen continued.

“There’s a couple of other variables now [this year] — but it is what it is. We still get a win here today and it means we can get ahead of Toulouse and then we can push on and deal with what we need to deal with next week.

“For us now, it’s about how we prepare. Guys have trained well this week. It’s been a good week. Everyone is excited about the challenge. I’ve no doubt that the players will give everything of themselves, and that’s what the people that come to support them want to see.

That’s all they want to see and that’s all we want from them, is just to make sure they can be as good as they can possibly be. They’ve prepped hard over the last couple of weeks and it means a huge amount to them. It meant a huge amount to get back to that point [as champions] and no-one wants to give that up now.

For Toulouse, who are on a streak of four consecutive Champions Cup wins, this is an opportunity to send out a real statement of intent as their resurgence gathers exciting momentum. 

A win against the holders would not only give the four-time winners a clean sweep of away victories in the pool, but by denying Leinster two losing bonus points, Toulouse would also book a place in the quarter-finals for the 17th time with a game to spare.

Ugo Mola has made five changes from the team that recorded a 28-27 win over Leinster at the Stade Ernest Wallon, while there are a number of positional changes, including Medard’s switch to fullback from the wing. 

Antoine Dupont is back in at scrum-half while All Black Jerome Kaino starts at number eight having missed the round two game through suspension. Everywhere you look, there is quality and experience.

“They are always huge games,” Cullen adds. “You only play six games [in the pool] so there is so little margin for error. 

“It is all about performance and getting as much as you can out of it. We’re still in general control if we go out and win the game — but Toulouse have won the tournament four times. It’s a massive game.” 

The pressure is on Leinster, but there’s no better time than now to show exactly why they’re European champions.  

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Adam Byrne
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Rory O’Loughlin
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne 
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin 
3. Tadhg Furlong 
4. Scott Fardy 
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan 

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Max Deegan 
21. Jamison Gibson-Park 
22. Noel Reid
23. Conor O’Brien.

Toulouse:

15. Maxime Médard
14. Cheslin Kolbe
13. Sofiane Guitoune
12. Romain Ntamack
11. Yoann Huget
10. Thomas Ramos
9. Antoine Dupont

1. Clément Castets
2. Julien Marchand (captain)
3. Charlie Faumuina
4. Richie Arnold
5. Joe Tekori
6. Francois Cros
7. Rynhardt Elstadt
8. Jerome Kaino.

Replacements:

16. Peato Mauvaka
17. Cyril Baille
18. Dorian Aldegheri
19. Piula Faasalele
20. Louis Madaule
21. Alban Placines
22. Sébastien Bézy
23. Zack Holmes.

Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here:

Send a tip to the author

Ryan Bailey

COMMENTS (31)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a comment

     
    cancel reply
    Back to top