Belfast Telegraph

Leinster will use survival instinct to reach final

Big moment: Ulster's Jacob Stockdale goes over for the try that never was against Leinster in the European Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva last month
Big moment: Ulster's Jacob Stockdale goes over for the try that never was against Leinster in the European Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva last month

By Alan Quinlan

What has gone before matters little now, the straitjacket effect of European semi-finals often puts the brakes on sides for whom free-wheeling comes naturally.

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It is at this stage of the season that the Holy Grail genuinely comes into sight, and that in itself creates a mental minefield.

Sports psychology can only do so much. Some players, particularly those who have yet to navigate their way through this kind of quagmire, find that their usually reliable fleet-footedness deserts them on occasions such as this.

I played in five European semi-finals with Munster, and these are the kind of days that remain vividly imprinted in your memory years after you hang up your boots.

As the week progresses, and the build-up reaches its climax, it dawns on you that these are the games that could define your club career. It can be so difficult not to get distracted by that shiny trophy. It is almost within touching distance, along with that May date you memorised in the calendar at the start of the season and all the razzmatazz that comes with a European final.

Toulouse have talent in abundance, they have proved that time and again this season.

Their sustained form domestically and in the Champions Cup is unrivalled in Europe - 15 wins from their last 17 games - dating back to the end of November, scoring 20 points or more in all of those victories.

With some of the best young talents in the game, never mind France, and plenty of wise heads from all corners of the globe adding composure around them, they can cause anyone trouble if given the opportunity.

And their success is not just founded on a devastating broken-field attack - their set-piece work, particularly their scrum, gives them an excellent platform to let the likes of Antoine Dupont, Cheslin Kolbe, Thomas Ramos and Sofiane Guitoune work their magic with ball in hand.

This is not your typical French side - they won't be traipsing around the field, hands on hips, when the clock ticks past 70 minutes; they are fit, well-drilled and extremely dangerous.

I rang my old team-mate Mike Prendergast, now coaching at Stade Francais, during the week to talk all things Toulouse and, as far as he is concerned, the Top 14 leaders are a really special group of players who cause you problems from all over the field.

He was effusive in his praise and believes they can go on to achieve great things.

They put 47 points on Clermont last week, beating a total of 40 defenders and making 11 offloads in the process, and the only blemish on their scorecard since playing Leinster at the RDS in their January Round 5 pool game was a 25-10 Top 14 defeat at Toulon two weeks ago.

However, for all of the strengths that this Toulouse team undoubtedly have, when it comes to survival skills, this Leinster side are the Bear Grylls of European rugby - when the elements are against them, they know enough tricks of the trade to get out alive.

Ulster, after carrying out their game-plan almost to a tee, found that out to their cost at the Aviva three weeks ago.

Even if Jacob Stockdale had grounded that ball at such a crucial stage of the game, I still think that this Leinster side would have found a way to get over the line.

There are question marks around Leinster's form in recent weeks but that has been a different side - in personnel and attitude - to the one we will see this weekend.

Some may argue that their build-up to tomorrow's game has not been ideal, and while a couple of PRO14 wins might have been preferable in Dublin 4, there should be no danger of them being caught cold against Toulouse.

Shooting the lights out in a quarter-final won't gain you any extra points in a semi.

In 2008 and 2009, Munster were soaring after head-turning quarter-final successes - against Gloucester and Ospreys - only to stumble past Saracens in the 2008 semi-final and be demolished by Leinster at Croke Park a year later.

Both sets of players will run out at the Aviva with four stars on their chests tomorrow afternoon but very few of the visiting side actually know what it takes to win one.

At this time of year, experience is the most valuable currency and in that regard Leo Cullen's side, despite some notable injuries, are genuine fat cats.

This Toulouse outfit, despite the club's great pedigree and presence of the likes of Jerome Kaino, Yoann Huget and Charlie Faumuina, cannot yet afford to buy in at Europe's current high-stakes table.

Despite Leinster's recent drop in form, some of which can surely be attributed to securing their PRO14 home semi-final with a stunning four games to spare, their entire body of work this season should not be detracted from; with one regular-season game to play, they have five more PRO14 competition points than they finished last season with, and have scored 58 more points, and 10 more tries.

Further still, Leinster already have a copy of the template on 'How to beat Toulouse' - after all they created and implemented it themselves, also on home turf, just over three months ago.

Despite their own attacking strengths, Leinster know they will need to avoid being drawn into a shoot-out in what should be excellent conditions for running rugby.

This game, just like the one at the RDS, is all about building phases, doing the simple things well, and dictating terms - an approach that worked well for us in Munster in the 2000s.

When you are not firing on all cylinders your attack may lack its usual fluency, but that should not stop you bringing the right intensity to every area of the pitch.

If you make your opponents uncomfortable and get ahead early on, an inexperienced team - particularly one scarred by their most recent trip to your home city - will find you very difficult to reel in.

Three months ago Toulouse had built up a remarkable run of form. There was a genuine nervousness around the RDS, particularly because Leinster had been shocked in the south of France in Round 2 of Pool 1.

Leinster responded by dominating Toulouse physically and starving them of possession by recycling the ball brilliantly, and that will undoubtedly be the plan again tomorrow.

Toulouse will probably cause Leinster problems at times, but if Leo Cullen's charges can effectively repeat their game-plan of three months ago, I can only see one winner.

Toulouse's offloading and broken-field running is great to watch and can tear defences apart, but it's difficult to showcase those skills when your hands are tied together.

If the occasion doesn't stifle the French visitors, Leinster almost certainly will.

Belfast Telegraph


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