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Matt Williams: Toulouse are formidable, but Leinster’s mentality monsters could earn fairy-tale ending

Whoever responds best to rugby’s oldest question could prevail in Saturday’s Champions Cup final

When we consider the outcome of the Champions Cup final, the numerical sequence of 1, 3, 5 and 4 is significant. These are the winning margins in the previous four finals.

Since 2020, the difference between the elation of lifting a trophy and the devastating heartbreak of losing has been impossibly close. It is the binary law of all finals.

Rugby is not a fairy-tale. Cinderella does not always get to the ball and sometimes Jack forgets to sharpen his axe and fails to cut through the beanstalk in time. So sometimes Prince Charming is grooving on the dance floor while Cinderella is cleaning the bathroom, and sometimes the carnivorous giant arrives. That’s life.

On Saturday the rugby gods will once again toss their dice into the cauldron of a Champions Cup final that for Leinster has come up snake eyes three times in succession.


While rugby is one of the world’s most physically demanding collision sports, it is also a game that requires a depth of passion that is almost impossible to appreciate by those existing outside the bubble of a successful team. Living your sporting dream makes the highs unimaginably euphoric, but the lows can almost break you.

Over recent seasons the Leinster players have done all the work to deserve the pleasure of the highs but their only reward has been an emotional bag of coal.

A lot of elite team sport is about how much physical and mental pain each individual is willing to inflict on themselves in order to achieve their collective goal. The emotional pain Leinster have been forced to endure in the past 36 months, across both the Champions Cup and the URC, is truly unimaginable.

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Last year, as La Rochelle once again smashed Leinster hearts, I thought this team cannot rise again. Even the toughest competitors have their limit. Surely a second loss to La Rochelle would be the end of this generation as a championship winning team.

How wrong I was to underestimate their grit. In a display of unimaginable courage, Leinster have played exceptional rugby and fought their way to win the right to compete in their third consecutive final.

What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that these players fully understand that in daring to compete they have once again opened themselves up to the possibility of another soul-crushing defeat. They have lived the bitterness of failure. They have experienced the horror of dragging themselves into an emotionally crushed dressingroom that oozes regret and bleeds with the anguish that only those who have lost finals can comprehend. Yet the competitor in them drives them on.

The indomitable spirit that Leinster have displayed in refusing to quit on their dream of lifting the Champions Cup trophy is nothing short of astonishing. It is a testament to the nurturing man-management of Leo Cullen and his staff.

Yet, no matter how much I admire Leinster’s courage and hope that they will finally be rewarded with a victory, in my heart I am not confident that they will avoid yet another devastating disappointment. In the last 20 minutes of the 2019 final against Saracens, Leinster failed to score a point. Regrettably, this has developed into a pattern. In the same time period during the 2022 final against La Rochelle, Leinster kicked a lone penalty goal. In last year’s decider there were zero points from Leinster in the closing quarter and again in the last quarter of the recent semi-final against Northampton they failed to register a score.

Over Leinster’s last five semi-final or final appearances, they have scored just 27 points in the closing 20 minutes. Compare that with their opening 20 minutes when they have notched up 71 points. In short, Leinster are fast starters but slow finishers.

To beat Toulouse, Leinster will need to be leading by more than two converted tries at the 60-minute mark, which is a huge ask against this French outfit. This season’s version of Toulouse are a talented crop at the peak of their powers with few chinks in their armour.

While the men in blue have bettered Toulouse on their last four meetings, across the memorable history of these two great clubs Leinster have only defeated Les Rouges et Noirs outside of Dublin once. So while the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is no man’s land, it is the French who hold the advantage. With Leinster in the rare position of underdogs.

It is impossible to look ahead to this match without referencing Antoine Dupont, the greatest player of this generation. He possesses the individual genius that can create those few seconds of alchemy that could bring a sixth star to the city called La Ville Rose.

Despite the unquestionable quality of Toulouse, in reaching their third consecutive final Leinster have already achieved the impossible, so a victory for the men in blue remains real. This is because Leinster are a team with an array of wonderful players, implementing a new but still vulnerable defensive system that is aimed at minimising Dupont and the Toulouse attack. The flaw in their new defensive system is that it leaves space out wide. Toulouse are a juggernaut with the ball in hand and they will target Leinster’s exposed flanks. Leinster are rolling their own set of dice in playing a defensive tactic of high risk and high reward.

All of which makes this final so fascinating.

When cut back to its raw essence, this match between two great clubs may be decided by mental strengths, rather than the physical. As the Spartan warriors were taught: “The real test comes when all strength has fled and men must produce victory on will alone.”

The winning factor may be reduced to the oldest of rugby questions – who wants it the most? If it does come down to pure desire, and Leinster can channel their collective mental grit, which has fuelled their mission all season, then they might finally be capable of bringing a fairy-tale ending to their defining obsession.