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Leinster Rugby vs Stade Toulousain
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Saturday, 30 April 2011, 15:30

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights: RTE2 21.15

For the sixth time in their history, Leinster contest a Heineken Cup semi-final this Saturday.  So far, their record in semi-finals is won one, lost four. Their opponents, Toulouse, are the aristocracy of Europe, with four Heineken Cups to their name. This is their tenth semi-final and so far they've won six and lost three. The last of those losing semi-finals was against Munster in Bordeaux eleven years ago. So, in their last five semi-finals they've won the lot, including last season's win over Leinster in Toulouse.

That day, just under a year ago, Leinster put in a brave performance but Toulouse were the better team and deserved their win. They didn't beat Leinster with traditional Toulouse backline wizardry, they beat them with sheer unrelenting power. They took the Leinster scrum apart with surgical precision using a series of eight-man pushes. The Leinster pack was splintered, bewildered and ultimately beaten up. The sight of young Cian Healy being subbed before half-time, holding a hoodie over his face to shield it from an intrusive cameraman, summed up the day.

It wasn't just the scrum that went wrong though. The line-out didn't go too well either and when Leinster created some chances in the first half, they didn't take them. However possibly the biggest factor on the day, even bigger than the scrum, was how Toulouse dominated the contact zone. At the breakdown, in the tackle, all over the pitch, they simply battered Leinster into submission physically. They punished Leinster relentlessly, and eventually the pressure told when they scored two quick tries in succession that was more a result of Leinster fatigue than anything else.

A year on, Toulouse will see the game going a similar way. They'll be smiling to themselves listening to all the pundits making Leinster favourites. Sure, they'll talk the polite talk about how Leinster are such a good team, but in their heart of hearts their coach Guy Noves and the players will see their gameplan working again. Hell, why shouldn't it?

Well things are a little different this year. Whereas Leinster came into last season's game bedevilled by injury, this season they have a relatively clean bill of health, bar Rob Kearney who won't sadly feature again this season.

  • This time they have a fit Jonny Sexton who's in cracking form.
  • This time they have a fit Sean O'Brien who's become a totemic figure in the team.
  • This time they have a fit Luke Fitzgerald, who's showing signs of returning to his best.
  • This time they have Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss, peripheral figures in the squad last year, but this year both having outstanding seasons in the front row.

Alongside them is a revitalised Healy, who took his beasting last year on the chin and decided to learn from it under new scrum coach Greg Feek. He has improved hugely as a scrummager as a result, while maintaining his enormous work rate in the loose.

Perhaps most importantly, this time Leinster have a new coach in Joe Schmidt, instead of a boss finishing up in Michael Cheika and all the distractions that came with that. Last season Leinster won a lot of games without really playing all that well in most of them. This season Schmidt has them playing some sublime rugby without losing the hard edge, especially in defence, that Cheika brought in. Going into last year's semi-final Leinster had scored 44 tries and conceded 34 in 24 games. This season they've scored 68 tries and have conceded 35 in 28 games. They have improved massively as an attacking force while keeping their defence mean and keen. Schmidt has used a canny rotation policy to keep his squad fit, happy and motivated. Last week he was able to use a wide range of players to get the win he needed in Aironi, while still resting Sexton, Strauss and Isa Nacewa, the three players he doesn't have proven cover for. In terms of selection, he's hardly put a foot wrong all season.

For Leinster fans these are all reasons to be cheerful and justifiably optimistic. However nothing comes easy against a team like Toulouse.

This season, it's Toulouse's turn to be troubled by injury going into the match particularly at prop and at half-back. In the front row tight-head prop Benoit Lecouls, who caused Cian Healy so much bother last year, is out for the season. South African Daan Human is only back from injury too though he is named on the bench. At half-back Byron Kelleher is also gone for the season and injuries to Frederic Michalak and Nicholas Vergallo have further stretched their resources there.

To their credit they haven't let these injuries disrupt their campaign for a Top 14/Heineken Cup double. Their 33-0 win last week against Bourgoin secured a home semi-final in the play-offs. This means they can effectively ignore their final league fixture next week against Clermont and focus all their energies on tomorrow's match. In truth their form hasn't been especially brilliant all season but they have developed an obdurate style that still makes them very hard to beat even if the rugby isn't as dazzling as in past seasons.

They've become accustomed to just doing enough in games. This cost them in the final pool match away to Wasps, when they couldn't find a second gear against the gutsy Londoners. This meant they had to go away to Biarritz for the quarter-final and when leading 17-0 at half-time, they thought their work was done for the day. Biarritz came back and Dimitri Yachvelli had a kick to win it at the end of normal time, which he squandered. Toulouse regained their composure and won it in extra time but it should never have been that close.

Despite the injuries, Guy Noves has still named a very impressive side. 20-year-old Jean-Marc Doussain has been named at scrum-half. He showed in the Six Nations Under-20s championship that he's a player with a big future, although he mostly played at out-half in that. He looks a big, strong lad but it's a major ask for him to come into a game of this magnitude. The Leinster backrow will be looking for every opportunity to rattle him. Beside him, David Skrela is no one's idea of a dream out-half but he is a very effective and underrated player and his solid kicking from both the hand and the tee provides a fulcrum for others to work around.

With the great Yannick Jauzion's powers on the wane, and Yann David injured, full-back Clement Poitreanaud has been moved into midfield. With his slight frame, you wouldn't imagine him as a natural inside centre but he's done very well there alongside the always dependable Florian Fritz. Their main creativity emanates from their back three though. A by-product of Poitreanaud's move to the centre is that a place has been found in the back three for Cedric Heymans at full back. He brings a bit of unpredictability to the position and links up beautifully with Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard, two players well used to scoring against Irish teams.

In the pack Jean-Baptiste Poux and Census Johnson are the props with the ageless William Servat, Europe's finest hooker, in between them. Yoann Maestri gets the nod to partner the superb Argentinean Patrico Albacete in the second row. After his recent injury problems their talismanic skipper Thierry Dusautoir isn't risked from that start and is named on the bench. It's a big call from Noves but it's made easier by having a replacement of the quality of Yannick Nyanga to come in. The other flanker Jean Bouilhou continues as captain in Dusautoir's absence and he's a major presence in the line-out. Louis Picamoles's powerful ball carrying gets him the shout at number eight ahead of Shaun Sowerby.

For Leinster, Joe Schmidt has opted to start the same fifteen that started against Leicester. This means Kevin McLaughlin holds off the challenge of Shane Jennings in the back row. It was surely the tightest of calls with Jennings's experience and his position as a defensive leader but McLaughlin has been superb in recent games, especially the quarter-final and his line-out ability against Bouilhou and Nyanga just gets him the nod. Jennings has to be content with a place on the bench, meaning Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan, both superb this season, don't feature in the squad at all. It's tough on the two young lads but just illustrates how competitive the backrow has become.

So, the prospect of the O'Brien v Dusautoir match-up is postponed for now but there are still several fascinating individual match-ups through-out the pitch. There's Sexton v Skrela at out-half, Nacewa v Heymans at full-back, Fitzgerald v Clerc on the wing, Servat v Strauss at hooker and Hines v Albacete in the second row.

Leinster can win this game but to do so they will need to produce their 'A' game for a full eighty minutes for possibly the first time this season. In technical terms Leinster's kicking and kick-chasing will be especially important. With any kicks to their back three, the chase needs to be aggressive but also organised as they are experts at exploiting any gaps in the line. Needless to say, the breakdown will be vital and Leinster will need to attack Toulouse relentlessly there. People will hold their breath at the first scrum, but the Leinster pack have waited a year for revenge for what happened last season and, as when they faced down Racing, Clermont and Leicester, they should be fine. Leinster need to be brave and committed with the ball in hand and look to attack Toulouse at any opportunity. As they showed last year Toulouse are masters at controlling the tempo of a match. They can slow the match down for half an hour, but then speed things up for ten minutes and these are when the scores come. Leinster need to impose their own fast-paced tempo on the game from the start and take Toulouse out of their comfort zone.

Of course, the final difference between this year and last year is the location of the match. Whereas last season Toulouse played at home in the heady atmosphere of the Stade Municipal, this season Leinster got the home draw. For this to really matter though, the Aviva Stadium needs to become a cauldron of noise tomorrow. The atmosphere has got steadily better there this season but it's yet to reach the crackling intensity of a Heineken Cup match at the RDS. It's up to every true Leinster fan to make as much noise as possible right from the start to really make Toulouse feel lonely on that pitch. Their travelling fans will be small in number but will be vocal so it will be important to drown them out in a sea of blue noise from right around the stadium. If we want the players to do their bit, then we have to do ours, even if it means making a fool of ourselves occasionally. So even if you're the only person in your section singing along to "Come on you Boys in Blue", get off your arse and do it. You might hear a few sniggers from people only out for the day but it's a small price to pay!!

You very much sense that this will be a defining game in Leinster history. Win and a bright future could very well await, lose and the old questions about Leinster's character will be raised again. But throughout the season, Leinster have visibly raised their performance level for the Heineken Cup and you have to believe that they'll do it again.

Last year, to be honest, the heart said Leinster but the head said Toulouse.

This year, the heart and head are in full agreement.

Leinster to win!

Go and make it happen, lads!


Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Stade Toulousain
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Cedric Heymans
Shane Horgan
14 Vincent Clerc
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Florian Fritz
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Clement Poitrenaud
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Maxime Medard
Jonathan Sexton
10 David Skrela
Eoin Reddan
9 Jean-Marc Doussain

Cian Healy
1 Jean-Baptiste Poux
Richardt Strauss
2 William Servat
Mike Ross
3 Census Johnston
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Yoann Maestri
Nathan Hines
5 Patrico Albacete
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Jean Bouilhou (C)
Sean O'Brien
7 Yannick Nyanga
Jamie Heaslip
8 Louis Picamoles

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Virgile Lacombe
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Daan Human
Stan Wright
18 Johnson Falefa
Devin Toner
19 Thierry Dusautoir
Shane Jennings
20 Nicholas Bezy
Isaac Boss
21 Yannick Jauzion
Ian Madigan 22 Shaun Sowerby
Fergus McFadden
23 Gregory Lamboley

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney

Benoit Lecouls,
Byron Kelleher,
Frederic Michalak,
Nicholas Vergallo,
Yann David,
Syvain Nicholas
Officials Referee: Dave Pearson (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes, Stuart Terheege (both RFU)
4th Official: Greg Garner (RFU)
5th Official: Paul Dix (RFU)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23