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Leinster and Toulouse both pursue culture, home talent and picking up quality overseas players

Toulouse have an incredibly high proficiency across all aspects of their game, which makes them more challenging to defend

I may not have been the keenest of rugby watchers in my childhood and adolescence, but it didn’t stop me from recognising and appreciating great teams. Leicester Tigers ruled the roost in England, while Toulouse captured the imagination of anyone that watched them play, quintessentially French in outlook, scoring outrageous tries that at times looked almost effortless.

Charmed by the way Toulouse played rugby, the power, passion, pace and skill resonated with me as an ideal of how the sport could and should be played. And then there was the iconic jersey, the rouge et noir, the one that I wanted most when I started my professional career.

When Toulouse were in the ascendancy so too were France at Test level, the French club’s four Champions Cup titles came in a period when the national team claimed seven Five/Six Nations titles. Successful international teams generally always have one dominant club, think New Zealand and the Crusaders and in the case of France that was Toulouse.

The French club’s four titles were book ended by winning the inaugural European Cup in the 1995-1996 season to their fourth triumph in the 2009-2010 campaign. No one would have envisaged that it would be another 11 years before they claimed that fifth star, one that gives them a pre-eminence on the European roll of honour.

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Perhaps it was partially attributable to the fact that they deviated from traditional rugby values and instead pursued a trend in rugby at the time that prioritised defence. Corrupting those core constituents, flair and imagination, had a negative effect.

Ligue Nationale de Rugby introduced some changes to club governance with regard to budgetary constraints, limiting the number of foreign players and focusing on the promotion of endemic talent. Somewhere along that pathway Toulouse rediscovered their rugby roots and it helped to rejuvenate the club.

Focusing on French players, local talent that wanted to play for the club, and sidestepping the “systems” that had permeated the sport and stifled unscripted attack, they clambered back to the pinnacle domestically, winning three of the last four Top 14 titles. A victory over La Rochelle in London three years ago handed them a fifth European crown.

In contrast Leinster, apart from a few brief flirtations at the penultimate stage of the tournament, took the first steps to becoming a powerhouse in Europe when they won the competition for the first time in 2009. Michael Cheika set out a vision, the players bought in, we survived a few speed bumps along the way, and got the right people in to take that final step, literally.

Leinster’s evolution continued first under Joe Schmidt and latterly Leo Cullen, building a strong culture of discipline and values off the pitch too, during which time they tagged on a further three titles, the last of which was 2018. Few would have countenanced that the club were about to endure a dry spell in terms of European silverware from that point, especially in losing three finals.

Leinster and Toulouse share many similarities, a strong emphasis on culture and home-grown talent as well as picking up quality overseas players when the opportunity arises.

While there is more flexibility to sign foreign players in the French system, there is a realisation in Leinster now that they need to invest more wisely; to add offshore spice and flavour to the local delicacy, so to speak. Jordie Barrett, RG Snyman and whoever replaces Michael Ala’alatoa have been chosen to do exactly that.

While this is the first time these teams will meet in a European final they have served up some incredible encounters down through the years. One of the highlights for me was playing in the 2006 quarter-final in Toulouse, a helter-skelter match where Leinster were on the right side of a 41-35 scoreline.

Leinster travelled as underdogs to the south of France that day, and while we had a plan we also embraced the chaos as it unfolded. Denis Hickie’s try was symptomatic of the approach we had to take, at a minimum to match their attacking intent, but crucially with more accuracy: we outscored Toulouse four tries to two.

When you prepare for a team that is dominant in one area of the game, such as La Rochelle or South Africa, the job spec is very clear, and, in some ways simple. Match them at their point of difference for long enough and you have a chance. Leinster were minutes away from winning in that fashion against La Rochelle last year.

When you are preparing for a team like Toulouse or the All Blacks, they have an incredibly high proficiency across all aspects of their game, which can make them more challenging to defend. The remit is much broader when the opposition can score tries from counterattack, offloads, set piece or mauls.

Cullen’s team will be very well prepared for the multifacet threats that Toulouse will offer thanks to the influence of Jacques Nienaber. One of the key questions will be how to contain Antoine Dupont. Leinster and Ireland have done so successfully on the last four occasions, but in a broader context the Irish province’s defence needs to play a supporting role if they are to win on Saturday. They have to have the courage to play.

The win against La Rochelle had its origins in the defensive effort, the aggressive line speed, going hard at the breakdown to slow down opposition possession, all of which combined to put Leinster on the front foot. They attacked through their defence.

Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park were given a platform to run the game and did so exceptionally well, especially in possession. While Leinster stuttered against Northampton they still managed to score tries in the first half, a buffer that proved crucial.

The disjointed nature of their post-interval showing offered a reminder of how dangerous it can be in knockout rugby to over-rely on defence. Jack Conan and Caelan Doris combined to make a well timed intervention late on to ensure the win.

Leinster will be buoyed by the returning Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, James Ryan and by the performance of Cormac Foley at scrumhalf initially against Ulster. Selection issues loom large this week both for the starting team and on the bench, where they might favour a 6-2 split.

Quite apart from the physical requirements Leinster have to be mentally strong and relentless. They must embrace the chaos, and as our former scrumhalf Eoin Reddan loved saying “find a way to turn defence into attack, and then keep attacking”.