Cullen relishes ‘great challenge’ Leinster face in battle of European titans

Clash of competition’s most successful sides makes for match of season on Irish soil

Heineken Champions Cup semi-final:

Leinster v Toulouse
Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 3pm - Live on BT Sport

This most probably won't scale the sheer dramatic heights of last week's quarter-final here. Nor, at five days' notice, will it be a sell-out. It's not a Six Nations match or a Test, or even a final for that matter. Yet considering its cast, the likely quality and what's at stake, this is most probably the match of the season on Irish soil.

European royalty doesn’t come more decorated, for these are the two most successful sides in the competition’s history. The four-time winners hosting the reigning five-time champions. URC champions versus French champions. The bulk of Ireland’s Triple Crown winners against the core of France’s Grand Slammers.


Like many years, it would have made a dream final but for a record fourth time they meet in a semi-final. Leinster lost in Le Stadium in 2010, but have won the last two, both in the Aviva, in 2011 and 2019.

Only Munster and Castres have met more, yet with six wins apiece nothing about this script seems dog-eared. The force has been more gradually with Leinster, who won two of the first six meetings, but four of the last six.

"You think of the history of the tournament, they have been the team that we have always seemed to be trying to chase in many ways," said Leo Cullen on Friday. "It's no different tomorrow. They are still the team we are chasing because they are a proud club, great tradition, huge resources and all the rest. It's a great challenge for us."

Cullen has named an unchanged starting XV, with one enforced alteration on the bench. Tommy O’Brien suffered an ACL injury in training this week, ruling him out of the remainder of the campaign and beyond, so Ciarán Frawley is restored.

As for Toulouse, Juan Cruz Mallía returns from suspension, while Cyril Baille and Anthony Jelonch are restored. Ugo Mola again opts for a 6-2 split on the bench, where Martin Page Relo and Zack Holmes replace the injured Baptiste Germain and Maxime Medard.

Ticket sales have surpassed 37,000 and Leinster expect an attendance of more than 40,000, with the Red Army having put it up to the blue clad supporters.

Thinking back to the “bleak” defeats by Saracens and La Rochelle in empty stadia, Cullen is hoping his players can feed off the atmosphere. “We had to live through that period where there’s been nobody at the games, which took the fun out of the whole thing really.”

The forecast is for a warm sunny day, Karl Dickson is a fine referee, and it could be a spectacular, rapid-fire game given the attacking intentions and quality of both sides.

Toulouse (2.79) and Leinster (2.85) are the only sides with an average ruck speed of under three seconds in this season's tournament, and the degree to which Leinster generate their customary quick ball will be key given Toulouse are proficient at slowing down opposition ball and winning turnovers. They have several threats, be it Emmanuel Meafou, Rory Arnold, Julian Marchand, Peato Mauvaka or whoever.

Leinster are the competition's leading scorers, with an average of more than 50 points and seven tries per game. They have averaged the most metres (930) and line breaks (10.2), with Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Jimmy O'Brien and Garry Ringrose to the fore, whereas Toulouse's abundant attacking threats come in different forms. They have beaten the most defenders (31.8 per game), with Antoine Dupont, Pita Ahki and Thomas Ramos leading the way, and made the most offloads, with Ramos top of the charts on 16, followed by Jelonch and that man Dupont.

Given the grief this powerful Toulouse pack inflicted upon Munster at scrum time and Leinster’s issues, albeit less damaging, against Leicester, that has to be a concern also.

Toulouse struck twice off set-pieces against Munster, although they have looked heavily dependant on moments of magic from Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Then again, not bad players to be dependant upon. They'll have their moments. It's guaranteed.

Hence, while Toulouse look wearier, as Cullen noted on Friday they scored late tries in both legs against Ulster and recovered from a 10-point deficit in the final quarter against Munster.

“In these type of games, you don’t get extra points for style. It’s about getting through to the next round and they’ve done that incredibly effectively. In many ways, it’s important and then you get the rate of improvement.

“You peak too early and you think you’ve got the perfect performance in a quarter-final but where does that really serve you in a semi-final or final? Sometimes it’s just about getting through to the next round. That shows a different type of grittiness or whatever it is that they have.”

Last season Leinster peaked in their quarter-final away to Exeter before losing to La Rochelle three weeks later. This time they only have a week’s turnaround, but that looks a tougher ask for Toulouse.

Leinster also appear to be in a better place than last year?

“It’s a very tough question. Off the back of the Six Nations, it’s probably flowed a bit better in terms of trying to get that balance,” said Cullen. “So we’ll wait and see, but guys are in good form, they’re excited, there are bits from that La Rochelle game which really stick in their mind, for a number of our players, for sure.”

At home this time, against La Rochelle they had no Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park or Caelan Doris. Andrew Porter has since reinvented himself as a starting loosehead, Ross Molony has come through and Dan Sheehan has emerged. All in all, that looks like an upgrade.

Furthermore, while 10 of this matchday squad have played in winning finals, 13 have not and what’s more 17 of them have suffered some or all of the pain inflicted over the last three seasons. That makes them angrier and hungrier, as well as fresher.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Michael Ala'alatoa, Joe McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.

TOULOUSE: Thomas Ramos; Juan Cruz Mallía, Pierre Fouyssac, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand (capt), Dorian Aldegheri; Rory Arnold, Emmanuel Meafou; Rynhardt Elstadt, Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Rodrigue Neti, David Ainu'u, Joe Tekori, Selevasio Tolofua, Thibaud Flament, Martin Page Relo, Zack Holmes.

Referee: Karl Dickson (England)

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times