Leinster and Toulouse square off in heavyweight showdown for rugby’s Champions Cup

Investec Champions Cup final: Leinster v Toulouse (Saturday, 2.45pm, live on IT4, RTÉ2 & TNT Sports 1)

Jamison Gibson-Park
Leinster's Jamison Gibson-Parke in action during last year's Champions Cup semi-final clash with Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

A week after the first fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in a quarter-of-a-century, European rugby’s equivalent rolls into the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Trailed by just as much hype as Oleksandr Uysk’s showdown with Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia, Leinster and Toulouse meet in a clash of both the two best sides in this year’s competition and the pair with the most historical success, boasting nine winners’ stars between them on their jerseys.

A fifth win for Leinster would only pull them level at the top of the roll of honour with Toulouse, so ‘undisputed’ might be a stretch, but they could certainly claim to be lineal champions, having also beaten La Rochelle in the quarters. Ronan O’Gara’s two-time defending champs, both capped by wins over Leinster in the decider, have been the most recent European standard setters, and Leinster’s bete noire.

As well as beating them in Marseille and Dublin showpieces the past two years there was a semi-final win in 2021. That was followed by defeat in the decider to Toulouse, the most recent of four European final victories over domestic rivals, following Biarritz (2010), Stade Francais (2005) and Perpignan (2003).

You have go back to the very first competition in 1996, and rugby union’s nascent professionalism, for Toulouse’s only European final victory over a non-French side. That extra-time win over Cardiff at the old Arms Park wasn’t just of a different rugby generation but a different actual generation. Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack became the first man to lift the trophy, a full three years before his son Romain, sure to be one of the key figures on Saturday, was born.

As La Rochelle have been to Leinster, so Leinster have been to Toulouse. The French giants have seen their European hopes ended by the province the past two years at the semi-final stage and they haven’t been close, either, 40-17 in 2022 then 41-22 last year.

Both were home matches for Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, a considerable advantage when it comes to the knockout stages and as Toulouse lock Emmanuel Meafou pointed out this week: “It never helps when you’ve got 50,000 Irish fans yelling at you.”

As true as that may be, it helps even less to play shorthanded. While Meafou’s own yellow card in the 2022 semi was inconsequential – Leinster were already 23-10 up and in control, and didn’t manage to score while he was off the field – last season’s encounter was characterised by Toulouse’s indiscipline. They played a quarter of the match with 14 men and during those two yellow cards Leinster scored four tries.

Barely 90 seconds before the first of those yellows, centre Pierre-Louis Barassi limped off after 14 minutes, with Toulouse leading 7-6.

The six-two split on the bench limited back replacement options and Toulouse’s solution of bringing on scrum-half Paul Graou meant shuffling Antoine Dupont out to fly-half and Ntamack to the centre.

As capable as those two are in those positions, it pales against their impact in their natural spots.

The Toulouse selection for tomorrow offers a safety net in case a similar scenario unfolds on Saturday, with Graou, Argentina international Santiago Chocobares and France star Thomas Ramos providing backline cover.

Leinster’s have adopted a different approach, with the influence of South Africa’s defensive mastermind Jack Nienaber evident. Not quite a full-on Springboks ‘bomb squad’ but six forwards, every one an international, including 2022 World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, will provide the finishing power for Leinster. That’s the script Nienaber and head coach Leo Cullen hopes plays out.

On the other side, Toulouse coach Ugo Mola will have a plan to deal with Leinster’s threat, but his side’s danger lies in its ability to go off-script, with threats from every phase of play, including without the ball.

Central to this is Dupont, the best player on the planet, whose number nine cruiserweight battle with Jamison Gibson-Park is the headliner on a bill boasting one heavyweight head-to-head after another.

Toulouse appear better equipped than they have the past couple of years and on a day with match-winners everywhere on the field and ready to join it from the bench, keeping 15 on that field could be the thing that swings it.

Despite Leinster’s recent dominance, an early knockout looks unlikely. Let’s get ready to rumble.