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Champions Cup final: Leinster ready for ‘difficult conversations’ before taking on Toulouse

Successful returns of James Ryan, Hugo Keenan and Will Connors enrich options for Champions Cup final

As defeats go Leinster’s 23-21 loss wasn’t without its positives. Most of all, James Ryan and Hugo Keenan completed 80 minutes unscathed after returning from absences of 12 and six weeks respectively, while Will Connors put in a 65-minute shift, the trio thus proving their wellbeing for next Saturday’s Champions Cup final against Toulouse.

Their returns will make for some “intense” selection meetings and “some difficult conversations with players”, admitted forwards coach Robin McBryde.

“It was great to see the three lads taking part in the game on Saturday in a fantastic atmosphere at Ravenhill. You can’t recreate that type of environment for the players, to bring them back to that big-match feel,”

Leinster opted for a 6-2 split on the bench in their 40-13 quarter-final win over La Rochelle, when starting Connors and keeping Josh van der Flier back for impact, before reverting to 5-3 in the semi-final win over Northampton, when Jimmy O’Brien was back in the mix. Ross Molony started ahead of Jason Jenkins, and van der Flier ahead of Connors, who didn’t make the 23.


Although the odds remain against Garry Ringrose returning, while Charlie Ngatai (shoulder) and Tommy O’Brien sustained injuries last Saturday in Belfast, the return of Ryan and Connors will presumably fuel McBryde’s argument for a 6-2 configuration.

“I’m sure Jacques [Nienaber] would support me in that,” said the forwards coach cheerily, and that quarter-final selection did have the defence’s coach imprint as well.

“There’s a lot of things to consider. We don’t tell you guys everything with regards to who we think has got it in them to go the full 80, and who’s fit, and what positions certain players are able to cover.

“There’s a lot of things in the mix and on top of that there’s an argument you should finish with your strongest team, not start with it. So, there’s a lot of things to throw in there but I dare say after we’ve thrashed it out for a fair bit, Leo [Cullen] pretty much gets it right.”

Toulouse provide a more typically French type of challenge than Ronan O’Gara’s team, who beat Leinster in the last two finals.

“They’ve got a lot more variety in their game than La Rochelle. I mean, La Rochelle do what they do and they do it very well and it’s tough to stop,” said McBryde.

“But when you look at the number of threats and the variety [Toulouse] have got ... they’re strong on set-piece, they’ve got a very good scrum and their driving maul is particularly effective when you look at [Peato] Mauvaka and [Antoine] Dupont off the back of a maul. What they create off the front foot, going forward, is nobody’s business.

“So it’s going to be a much sterner challenge in dealing with all the variations they’ve got.”

“Jacques is very good at looking at the soul of opposition teams. You look at the DNA of Toulouse, it hasn’t really changed that much. They are very comfortable in what they do and I’d say Leinster are probably similar to that as well.

“There is an emphasis on the same aspects. It all starts from the set-piece, but there are certain things that energise you and drive you on to play a certain style. Definitely watching Toulouse, they are very energised when they get that speed of ball and are on the foot front.”

Noting how Dupont thrives on quick, front-foot ball, McBryde added: “We can’t make it too easy for him. We’ve got to front up as a pack and that will be our job really.

But he draws huge belief from the “experience” of his pack.

“They don’t take anything for granted – big-match players, cohesion, the level of quality in training, the growth that I’m consistently seeing from season to season, game to game, there’s no ceiling on this group.”

Mention of the threat Jamison Gibson-Park will pose Toulouse prompted McBryde to note: “It’s very easy when you look at the opposition to forget who is playing in blue as well. You know what they are looking at when they’re looking at us. We’ve got to keep on reminding ourselves of that this week and fire a few shots of our own.”

Sometimes in the last few seasons it’s seemed that the pressure on Leinster – both internal and external – to win this coveted fifth star is too intense, and it was refreshing to hear McBryde declare: “Sometimes losing and winning doesn’t determine how happy I am.

“I’m happy. I know my face doesn’t give a lot away. You’d prefer to win obviously but I enjoy going through the process,” he said with regards to devising and executing plans.

“You see the growth in the players, that’s what stimulates me. We didn’t win the final on the last two occasions but did I enjoy them? Yeah, I enjoyed those finals.

“I know we lost but if you’re going to hinge the happiness or quality of your life on winning all the time ... that doesn’t really bother me. If we get a win, that will be the icing on the cake. We’ve still done the same journey, still put the same hours of work in. We need to learn the lessons and perform on Saturday. That’s the most important thing really; that we turn up, perform, believe in ourselves, give it a good crack.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times