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'Toulouse have the ability just to turn it on at this stage of the season'

Leo Cullen looks ahead to Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final tie with the French giants.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen at Friday's Captain's Run.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen at Friday's Captain's Run.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ON THE EVE of a massive Heineken Champions Cup semi-final meeting with Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium [KO 3pm, BT Sport], Leo Cullen cut a relaxed figure as he addressed the media following this morning’s team announcement. 

So far, the week has gone to plan. Cullen has been able to name unchanged starting XV for tomorrow’s game, with the sole change to the matchday 23 seeing Ciarán Frawley come in for Tommy O’Brien, who is set for a long spell on the sidelines due to an ACL injury.

Toulouse’s preparation has been a little less comfortable. We’ll see tomorrow if the physical and mental toll of going to extra-time against Munster last weekend has any lingering effects, but even the task of going away from home two Saturdays in a row will have sapped a little energy from their legs.

As of this morning, Leinster had already shifted over 39,000 tickets for the game, as two European giants prepare to fight it out for a place in Marseille, with the general consensus being that Leinster will be the team taking on either Racing 92 or La Rochelle in that 28 May decider.

Toulouse haven’t quite hit their usual high standards so far across the campaign, but Cullen is wary that the French side always have the quality and potential to deliver a big performance against the odds. They’re five times winners of this thing for a reason. 

“They have the ability just to turn it on at this stage of the season,” Cullen said.

Like, there’s two different styles, they have the pressure game where they tighten things up and keep the game very, very tight, then they’ve the ability to open up at moments in the game as well with some of the players that they have.

“It’s been pretty well documented, you’ve seen some of their individuals, the big seasons they’ve had, not just with Toulouse but with France. And they’ve a huge amount of experience in the team now that has produced on the big days, during the course of the Six Nations and you saw it during the November internationals as well.

“It’s a great challenge for our guys. They are the five-time champions, they’re the current champions, they’re the Top 14 champions and they have a Grand Slam winning group of players as well. But that’s what our guys wanted, they want to be up against this type of team at this stage of the tournament.

“Everyone just wants to get into the game at this point. From our point of view, there were some good parts in our performance (against Leicester last weekend), there’s lot of things we can get better at and that’s what we’ve tried to focus on as a group this week.

“We just want to get going now.”

The depth of quality across the Toulouse backline can perhaps get a little lost at times, given how much attention is afforded to star scrum-half, Antoine Dupont. 

The World Player of the Year was uncharacteristically subdued against Munster as Johann van Graan’s men did a good job of limiting his influence, but he doesn’t often turn out two below-par performances in a row.

antoine-dupont Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

As Cullen stresses, the way his team try to contain Dupont will be key. Leinster will be wary of putting to much focus on just one individual, but also know that the moment you switch off is the moment he can change a game.

“It is dangerous to focus on just one player, and they have a multitude of threats,” Cullen continues.

“But yeah, if you switch off for more than one second, he’s very dangerous in terms of his own running game, his ability to break, but it’s also if you get to sucked in by him, they have the ability to make breaks out wider, and his support lines on the inside are very, very dangerous, so it’s making sure we have guys that are constantly tracking back on the inside because he is so dangerous in terms of being on someone’s shoulder, the ball is back on the inside all the time. So he’s a constant threat. 

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“Even just the penalty shootout threat, there’s not so much we can do about that, but it just shows you in terms of his composure to his game as well. 

“He’s been the form player in Europe for the past three or four seasons probably, and we were one of the teams that saw him first when he was playing with Castres as a 17 year old.

“So he’s had an amazing rise in the game, and as I said it’s an amazing challenge for our players to come up against the calibre and quality of the Toulouse players. Not just Dupont, but all across their team.

“We’ve discussed certain things that they may do, but again we have to be able to be alert to the things that they’re trying to impose upon us. It’s a fascinating challenge, they’re a great team. We watched on with great interest last year, we got knocked out io the semi-final against La Rochelle, and watched Toulouse go on and beat La Rochelle.

“It’s a fascinating challenge, we have huge respect for them as a team. We’re just excited to get going at this point, dying for kick-off. Let’s get it on now, it’s what we’re excited about, and just rip into the challenge of playing the top team of Europe over the last 25 years of the competition. 

“It doesn’t get much better really, we’re excited to get going.”

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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