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Fast but not loose can be key to a Leinster triumph in their Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse


Toulouse's Romain Ntamack has already put two Irish teams to the sword in Europe this season including this try at Ravenhill

Toulouse's Romain Ntamack has already put two Irish teams to the sword in Europe this season including this try at Ravenhill

AFP via Getty Images

Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde is expecting a tough time in the scrum against Toulouse

Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde is expecting a tough time in the scrum against Toulouse

©INPHO/Ben Brady


Toulouse's Romain Ntamack has already put two Irish teams to the sword in Europe this season including this try at Ravenhill

As Europe’s two most successful sides do battle in the Aviva Stadium this afternoon, already there is a feeling that whichever one of Leinster and Toulouse advances to the Marseilles final in two weeks’ time will go into that game as favourites to lift the trophy. Toulouse are aiming to become the first side to beat all three Irish sides in the knock-out stages but Leo Cullen’s men will find elements of those 260 minutes against their Irish rivals – when the five-time champions squeezed by Ulster and could separate themselves from Munster only by virtue of penalty kicks – instructive in their challenge to end the reign of the European champions.

1. Focus, focus, focus

Speaking after his side’s six-point win in the first-leg of their last-16 tie in Toulouse, Ulster coach Dan McFarland mused that such an advantage meant little in the grand scheme of things given that, with such an array of attacking talent, Toulouse could erase such a margin in ten seconds of play. 

It will not be lost on Leinster that both Munster and Ulster had double-digit leads over the French double-winners and still ended up enduring heart-breaking exits, while the strength of the visitor’s bench almost makes holding such an advantage heading into the final stretch an imperative. 

Last week, Munster led by ten in the final quarter of the game but Toulouse need only a sniff to rack up points in a hurry. It was the same in Belfast where a brief lapse in concentration saw a pair of quick-fire tries.

For all the understandable attention afforded to World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont, it has been Romain Ntamack who has been the tormentor-in-chief of the Irish sides so far this season. Whether it be against Ireland in Paris, Ulster in both Toulouse and Belfast or Munster in Dublin, the 23-year-old out-half has shown time and time again that he only needs a glimpse of an opening, a split second of defensive indecision, to exact a huge toll on the opposition.

Leinster will know they must be on their mettle from first whistle to last in order to contain him.

2. Scrum superiority

With so many of the same protagonists from the Six Nations meeting between Ireland and England on show in Leinster’s win over Leicester at Welford Road last Saturday, there was plenty of chatter in the build-up regarding whether the scrum battle would follow the same pattern.

While a bit of a lottery, the set-piece proved not to be a telling factor in the contest. The same could not be said for events in Dublin where the Toulouse eight were monstering their Munster counterparts. While Johann van Graan’s side did seem to get to grips with things as the game wore on, the final points of the game, that drew Toulouse level at the end of normal time, came via another penalty.

Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde knows what’s coming.

“Looking at the Munster game they really went at them at scrum time,” he said. “[Julian] Marchand, Cyril Baille, they’ve got an appetite for scrumagging and as much as we had [Ellis] Genge and [Julian] Montoya and Dan Cole, I think there’s a little bit more about this Toulouse pack really.

“So yeah, we’re going to have to step up and improve again.”

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3. Looking to the line-out

While Ulster didn’t allow the scrum to be as much of an issue in their games with Toulouse, the line-out loomed large. Ulster are reliant on their effective rolling maul but that area of the game was largely negated by the presence of Rory Arnold who provided a constant obstacle for the northern province’s hookers. 

The Australian, perhaps fortunate to be playing in this game after admitting this week he feared last week’s tackle on Simon Zebo would yield a red card, is a menace on opposition throw and there remains a sense that for all Ronan Kelleher’s notable attributes, his darts from touch remain something of a work-on. 

The return of James Ryan to Leinster’s ranks last week clearly made a big difference to their own line-out, coming up with two big steals, and both of Leinster’s hookers will no doubt be grateful for his presence all the more given the looming threat of Arnold. 

4. Breakdown battles

Since stitching a fourth star onto their jersey in 2018, after which Saracens and La Rochelle have proven to be insurmountable obstacles in this competition, there has been much debate over whether the URC’s standard bearers have the physical stature to mix it with the most sizeable of European packs once we reach the business end of proceedings. 

Toulouse fall right into that category as, for all their wizardry in moving the ball, they are a truly abrasive outfit. 

Munster, led by a fantastic back-row performance from Peter O’Mahony et al, matched them in the contact area in an effort that yielded an incredible 19 turnovers. Ulster, in the first-leg at least, offered a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lose the battle there. Counter-rucked off their own ball with eye-catching regularity out in France, it is nigh-on impossible to get into your usual rhythm when losing the breakdown battle in such a fashion. 

Leinster don’t possess quite the same poaching threat as Munster but will still need to match Toulouse blow for blow.

5. Lift the tempo

For all Toulouse’s heft, however, there remains a sense that, like more than a few French sides, they are somewhat susceptible to fatigue when opposition can keep the ball in play time high. Both Ulster and Munster enjoyed their best periods when they played fast, but not loose, and Leinster are more than capable of the same, especially with Jamison Gibson-Park at nine so quick to the ruck.

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