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Lancaster: 'Toulouse are as good a team as I've coached against'

The Leinster senior coach says Saturday’s heavyweight showdown at the RDS is the ‘premier game’ in the Champions Cup this weekend.

THE SERIOUS BUSINESS. 

The start of a big European week in Leinster’s UCD headquarters, and there’s a mixture of excitement and tension. It’s palpable. Nobody needs reminding of what’s at stake come Saturday lunchtime, nor the size of the task facing the province. These are big weeks, season-defining ones. 

Unbeaten in their last 12 games, it would be hard to select a tougher challenge than Toulouse for the defending champions to come up against this weekend, as Pool 1 prepares itself for a heavyweight showdown between two European titans, both of whom are four-time champions. 

Maxime Médard celebrates at the final whistle Maxime Medard celebrates Toulouse's win back in October. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Stuart Lancaster hasn’t even considered what a second defeat of the pool campaign would mean for Leinster. It wouldn’t prove fatal, but would certainly rank on a catastrophic scale. The province’s fate is in their own hands, but nobody inside these four walls are under any illusions of the magnitude of what awaits. This is the sternest test of their season to date. 

The week hasn’t exactly started as Leinster would have hoped. Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner are in a race to be fit, and while Ross Byrne and Scott Fardy are able deputies, Cullen needs a full deck at his disposal to topple the Top 14 leaders and regain control of the pool. Leinster know they’ll need to be at their big-game best.

Since October’s round two clash between the sides, when Toulouse ended Leinster’s unbeaten run in Europe which stretched back to April 2017, the French outfit have seen off Perpignan, Bordeaux, Pau, Stade Français, Wasps in the back-to-back December games, Toulon and, at the weekend, Agen.

They’re in pole position to claim a first Top 14 title in six years and lead Leinster by two points in Pool 1, having won all four of their outings to date, heading into the final two rounds of European action. 

Furthermore, six of the games in their 12-match unbeaten streak have been on the road, where their record is won five, drawn one — that stalemate coming against Clermont when a much-changed side wrestled their way back from a 17-13 deficit at one juncture. 

All in all, Toulouse travel to Dublin as the in-form side in Europe.

“Playing at home at the RDS with a one o’clock kick-off and a full house, it will be a fantastic atmosphere,” Lancaster says. 

“It’s certainly the premier game in Europe in my mind because of the quality of the two teams. I mean they’re as good a team as I’ve coached against.

“Jerome Kaino is back, and he makes a difference. It will be a similar backline, but I think Antoine Dupont is playing more consistently. I think he’s world class, Dupont. They’ll probably play [Thomas] Ramos at 10. They’ve got [Romain] Ntamack and then there’s the back three of [Yoann] Huget, [Maxime] Medard and [Cheslin] Kolbe — he didn’t play at the weekend. 

“But also they’ve got, which is different for normal French teams, they’ve got ball-handling forwards. So [Joe] Tekori is a huge handful and [Charlie] Faumuina. Across the board, they’re just tough to play. This type of rugby that Toulouse like to play.

“So, we need to play our style, obviously, but we need to make sure that we respect the ball as well because if we turn the ball over quickly, or cheaply, they’ll be gone or they’ll be trying to go.

Luke McGrath Full steam ahead: Leinster began preparations for Toulouse yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“The big thing for me is being on point defensively as well. Making sure we’re working hard across the board defensively.”

After conceding an early 14-0 deficit at the Stade Ernest Wallon, it goes without saying that Leinster will be looking to get off to a fast and strong start on Saturday, while Lancaster hopes the sell-out home crowd can create an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors.

“It was very tight over there but one thing that stuck in my mind as well was the intensity, the atmosphere and the environment,” he continued.

“That’s one thing that we need at the RDS this weekend. The boys love playing there and I think in terms of European Rugby, this is the premier game this weekend. You’ve got the team who has won it four times against the team that has won it four times. Both teams going well in their own individual competitions, domestically.  

“They’ve been unbeaten since we played that game and they’ve changed their team and similarily we have. Any team that goes to Clermont and draws 20-20 and beats Toulon 39-0 are a good team.”

While much of the pre-match debate will revolve around the fitness of Sexton, Toner and now Henshaw, Cullen’s back three selection is equally intriguing, given the threats Toulouse pose in that department. 

Rob Kearney came through his return from injury unscathed against Ulster and is expected to retain the fullback jersey, with Jordan Larmour operating on the right wing, but there is a question mark over who starts on the opposite flank.

James Lowe’s suspension will allow Leinster include both Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park in their 23, but leaves Cullen with another headache as to who to fill the number 11 jersey, with Rory O’Loughlin, Adam Byrne and Barry Daly vying for that spot.

“Toulouse’s strengths really are lots of different things but one particularly is the counter-attack,” Lancaster explained. “They’ve scored over half their tries from the counter.

So, there’s no doubt our back three will be tested by their back three. It’s not just the back-three, it’s an outstanding backline unit. From Dupont outwards. Dupont is one of the best scrum-halves I’ve coached against. Then you got through the line and you have Ramos, Ntamack, you’ve got Madaule, you’ve got Kolbe — the list goes on.

“They’re an outstanding counter-attacking team. So, it’s a dynamic, we’ve got two different styles of rugby that are going to come against each other. Toulouse are a real threat if you give them easy ball and turnover ball.”

It means Leinster will have to be accurate and disciplined with ball in hand and not squander possession cheaply like they did at times in the second half against Ulster at the weekend.

“Yeah, but you can’t limit yourself to not passing the ball,” Lancaster agrees. “You have to give the boys a licence to play. But equally, it’s playing at the right time in the right way.

“So yeah, we’ll have a plan. But equally, they’ll have a plan as well. One thing we learned in the last game was how well they prepped for us. The intercept try was a good example.

“So, we’ve got high regard for number one) all their players, they’ve got great ball-handling forwards and fantastic backs and two) a very high regard for their coaching team who clearly have done a lot of homework on us in the last game and I’m sure they’ll do the same this time. ”

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Ryan Bailey

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