The penultimate round of the Heineken Cup gets underway with the reigning champions travelling to face the most decorated team in the history of Europe in what will be a mouth watering clash.
To say this is a difficult match to predict is a massive understatement.
On one hand, you have Stade Toulousain, whose trophy cabinet is more stacked than any team in France. The 17 time French champions can also boast a Heineken Cup record that is without parallel, including three titles, two more final appearances, and a staggering 11 appearances in the final eight.
However, this year they've been solid, but far from spectacular. Fifteen wins from 26 matches in the Top 14 this year is very unlike the powerhouse. Their road to the semifinal was similar, for despite five wins in pool play with just the solitary loss to the Cardiff Blues, they were not faced with any top level opposition.
In the quarterfinal, however, they made their most emphatic statement of the season, smashing Stade Francais 42-16.
Leinster have been quite the opposite.
The Heineken Cup champions navigated their way through a tough pool, playing an in form London Irish for a loss and a draw. But it was against medium (with the greatest respects!) strength teams Brive and Scarlets that they showed their real power, winning all four matches by at least 17 points.
They were given a scare by a very good Clermont side, having to come back against the French and rely on the boot of Jonathan Sexton, who kicked seven from eight. Indeed the boots—or lack thereof—of their opponents, who missed six goals and three drops, conspired to give Leinster a 29-28 win.
In the Magners League, Leinster have truly shown their transformationn as a genuine world power, sitting comfortably at the top of the table and on track to claim at least one major “provincial” title.
This Heineken Cup clash has the potential to be a fascinating divergence of styles.
Toulouse, under long serving coach Guy Noves, have shown their ability to play almost any mode of game, and much of this comes from having resources that most clubs could only dream of.
While they have throughout the season played a regimented style, something specifically noted by Leinster coach Michael Cheika, they as a club are as close to an embodiment of classical French rugby as any other side.
But while they are renowned for their structure, they can cut loose with terrifying precision. This could determine the game because Leinster has a tendency to almost get spooked by such rugby—like when up they ran into Clermont’s up tempo game.
The Irish's trump card will be the tenacity and composure they have shown in Europe this season.
It is unlikely they will tear a side apart, as evidenced by the fact that despite leading the Magners League they are the second worst attacking team by tries scored. However, they are all but an impossible side to “knockout” and will remain a constant threat even if trailing on the scoreboard.
Toulouse will bring their typical star studded squad into the match, although they have one or two injury concerns, namely in the front row and in the halves—Louis Picamoles (ankle), William Servat (thigh), and Census Johnston (knee).
Improving No. 10 David Skerla will partner with former All-Black Byron Kelleher to lead an all-international backline at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse.
Leinster will wait to see if Sexton is cleared fit. The standoff has not competed since playing an integral role in their win against Clermont.
Otherwise Leinster will be at full strength, with Brian O’Driscoll headlining a squad stacked with 15 internationals including Leo Cullen, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy, and Nathan Hines.
1 May 2010, Toulouse v Leinster @ Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Previous Heineken Cup meetings
(Date - Stage - Home - Score – Away)
Sat 12 Jan 08, Pool 6, Leinster 20 - 13 Toulouse
Sun 18 Nov 07, Pool 6, Toulouse 33 - 6 Leinster
Sat 1 Apr 06, Quarter Finals, Toulouse 35 - 41 Leinster
Sun 13 Jan 02, Pool 6, Toulouse 43 - 7 Leinster
Fri 28 Sep 01, Pool 6, Leinster 40 – 10 Toulouse
Sat 11 Oct 97, Pool A, Toulouse 38 - 19 Leinster
Sat 6 Sep 97, Pool A, Leinster 25 – 34 Toulouse
Leinster squad to face Toulouse
Forwards : Leo Cullen, John Fogarty, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Nathan Hines, Bernard Jackman, Shane Jennings, Stephen Keogh, Ronan McCormack, Kevin McLaughlin, Malcolm O'Kelly, Mike Ross, Richardt Strauss, CJ van der Linde, Stan Wright
Backs: Shaun Berne, Gordon D'Arcy, Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Isa Nacewa, Paul O'Donohoe, Brian O'Driscoll, Eoin O'Malley, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton