Toulouse out to derail Leinster's defence
April 30, 2010
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip is felled by the Toulouse defence during their famous quarter-final victory on French soil in 2006 © Getty Images
Defending champions Leinster face the biggest hurdle in their quest for back-to-back Heineken Cup titles this weekend in the form of three-time winners Toulouse.
The European heavyweights will go head-to-head at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse for a place in this season's finale at the Stade de France in Paris on May 22. The hosts, who are chasing what would be their fifth Heineken Cup Final appearance, enter the clash as firm favourites having handed French rivals Stade Francais a rugby lesson in their quarter-final clash earlier this month. They were brought crashing down to earth by Bourgoin the following week but have since bounced back to winning ways as they continue their push for Top 14 honours.
Toulouse also boast a 4-3 tournament record against their Irish opponents but crucially Leinster can point to their stunning victory over Guy Noves' side when they met on the same ground at the quarter-final stage four years ago. That stand-out success will bring some comfort as they bid to shake off the doubts raised by successive Magners League defeats and a raft of injuries that robbed them of momentum in the aftermath of their quarter-final success against Clermont Auvergne.
Leinster will go into the clash without first choice fly-half Jonathan Sexton who has failed to recover sufficiently from a fractured jaw he suffered in the battling victory over Clermont but Cheika is confident that Shaun Berne is an able deputy. "He (Sexton) is desperate to play and we gave him every opportunity but we felt it was too big a risk and we also have the player's welfare and safety in mind," said Cheika. "But we also have 100% confidence that Shaun Berne can do the job."
There was better injury news with Rob Kearney passed fit to start at fullback having recovered from an ankle injury. The Irish international's pace and powerful boot are sure to be a key weapons as Leinster look to shackle their attack-minded opponents. Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa make up the rest of the back three with Brian O'Driscoll, another to have come through an injury scare, partnering Gordon D'Arcy at centre.
Leo Cullen leads the side and starts in the second-row with Scotland's Nathan Hines while Cian Healy is named at loose-head prop in a front-row which also includes John Fogarty and Stan Wright. Shane Jennings packs down at openside to form an all-Ireland international back-row alongside Kevin McLaughlin and the ever-impressive No.8 Jamie Heaslip. CJ van der Linde, Malcolm O'Kelly and Girvan Dempsey are named among a strong replacements bench that is sure to see some action in what is shaping up as a lung-busting contest.
Toulouse have had to combat injury concerns of their own with captain Thierry Dusautoir under a cloud until recently but he came through his side's latest Top 14 clash to signal his return to fitness. Elsewhere, David Skrela gets the nod at No.10 with Jean-Baptise Elissalde set to provide cover for his international colleague, and Kiwi scrum-half Byron Kelleher, from the bench having shaken off a calf injury.
Noves has also bolstered his line-up and underlined the enviable amount of talent at his disposal by recalling winger Vincent Clerc, centre Florian Fritz, No.8 Shaun Sowerby, lock Romain Millo-Chluski and prop Daan Human while the in-form Clement Poitrenaud and Yannick Jauzion fill the fullback and inside centre berths respectively. International duo Maxime Medard and Louis Picamoles are also part of a formidable list of reserves.
Home advantage at this stage of the competition is priceless and it is an advantage that Toulouse have earned the hard way. In return their fans rewarded them with an electric atmosphere for their quarter-final victory and more of the same is promised come Saturday afternoon - although an estimated 4,000 Leinster fans making the trip to south west France will be present to roar the visitors on.
Toulouse delivered arguably the most complete performance of the quarter-finals and a similar display this time in front of an energised and expectant home crowd would surely see them close in on yet another European crown. However, Leinster are defending champions for a reason - they are a class act with more than their fair share of potential match-winners. But there is no doubt they will have to weather a ferocious storm and conjure a game-changing riposte if they are to upset the odds. Fortune smiled on Leinster in the last round and they will be hoping that they can ride that luck all the way to Paris.
After we were treated to a breath-taking feast of quarter-final rugby it would be perhaps a little greedy to expect more of the same but this clash has the makings of a titanic struggle that could well eclipse all that has come before it.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; D Skrela, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat or V Lacombe, B Lecouls, R Millo-Chluski, P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir [capt], S Sowerby
Replacements: V Lacombe or A Vernat Basualdo, J Poux, Y Montes, Y Maestri, L Picamoles , J Elissalde, Y David or F Maka , M Medard
Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; C Healy, J Fogarty, S Wright, L Cullen [capt], N Hines, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip
Replacements: B Jackman, C Van Der Linde, M Ross, M O'Kelly, S Keogh, P O'Donohoe, E O'Malley, G Dempsey
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrew Small (England), James Jones (Wales)
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter