Champions Cup final: Leinster ponder team selection calls as Will Connors pushes for starting berth

Hugo Keenan and James Ryan both set to feature after recovering from injury while Garry Ringrose looks likely to miss out

Leo Cullen and the Leinster thinktank have had a number of options to consider when devising their selection strategy for Saturday’s Champions Cup final against Toulouse in north London. But this is from a position of relative strength following the timely returns of Hugo Keenan and James Ryan against Ulster last week, with both players set to feature against the French outfit.

Keenan and Ryan returned after absences of six and twelve weeks respectively in the 23-21 loss to Ulster, with both obliged to play the full 80 minutes. It thus seems virtually certain that Keenan will be restored at fullback, while Ryan will assuredly be named in the match-day squad when it is announced at midday on Friday.

There have been sightings of Garry Ringrose in training this week - Leinster’s co-captain has only played 20 minutes off the bench, and that was on the right wing for Ireland in the Six Nations finale against Scotland - since initially injuring his shoulder in Leinster’s pool win over Leicester in January.

But although he was in line to make his return by leading the side in their semi-final against Northampton three weeks ago, apparently Ringrose suffered another shoulder injury that week and thus looks unlikely to play in the final.


Having returned on the bench against Northampton, Jimmy O’Brien has another two games under his belt and is thus also pressing for inclusion. But save for Keenan’s return, the expectation must be that the starting backline from that semi-final will remain unchanged.

As well as Ryan, Leinster’s other options in the secondrow are to restore Jason Jenkins, who started the quarter-final win over La Rochelle before being a replacement against Northampton after going on Leinster’s South African trip, or retaining Ross Molony alongside Joe McCarthy. Of the two departing locks, Jenkins is probably a likelier inclusion than Molony.

The other riddle facing Cullen, Jacques Nienaber et al is whether to retain the conventional 5-3 split which they used in the semi-final, or gamble on the 6-2 configuration employed in the quarter-final win over La Rochelle.

There are also several possibilities in the starting backrow, with both Will Connors and Jack Conan in consideration for promotion. Prior to this season, Connors had only played once in the Champions Cup in his injury-affected career, namely the re-arranged 2019-20 quarter-final loss to Saracens behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium.

But Connors was named slightly out of the blue in the pool win away to La Rochelle last December and then restored for just his third appearance in this competition against Ronan O’Gara’s team in the quarter-final.

Both selections smacked of Nienaber’s influence and it would be no surprise if the dual World Cup-winning coach had a big say in this selection as well. In that scenario, it would be no surprise if Leinster restore Connors and go with a 6-2 split on the bench, all the more so with O’Brien - the squad’s Swiss army knife - able to cover midfield and the backthree. That said, leaving out Ciarán Frawley (who started the semi-final at fullback) and Harry Byrne, a replacement in both the quarter-final and semi-final, would mean no established cover at outhalf.

With only Anthony Jelonch of their frontline players currently sidelined, Ugo Mola and the Toulouse coaching ticket also have a number of options, not least at fullback, where Blair Kinghorn was chosen ahead of Thomas Ramos and excelled in the semi-final win over Harlequins. That, admittedly, would risk sacrificing Ramos’ exceptional goal-kicking, from the off at any rate.

Leinster (possible): Keenan; Larmour, Henshaw, Osborne, Lowe; R Byrne, Gibson-Park; Porter, Sheehan, Furlong; McCarthy, Jenkins; Baird, Connors, Doris.

Replacements: Kelleher, Healy, Ala’alatoa, Ryan, van der Flier, Conan, McGrath, O’Brien/Frawley.

Toulouse (possible): Kinghorn; Mallia, Costes, Ahki, Lebel; Ntamack, Dupont; Baille, Mauvaka, Aldegheri; Flament, Meafou; Cros, Willis, Roumat.

Replacements: Marchand, Neti, Merkler, Arnold, Ferreira, Graou, Chocobares, Ramos.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times