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Champions Cup: Serial winners Leinster and Toulouse a double act with a difference

Province edges head-to-head eight to six, but have since added two more semi-final wins at the Aviva in last two seasons

Stade Toulousain have always been visionaries.

Back in December 1996, they hosted an eight-team tournament called the International Masters Matra, featuring themselves and Agen, one Argentinian club Banco Nacion, one from New Zealand (Ponsonby), one Romanian (Constanza), one Australian (West of Brisbane), one Italian (L’ Aquila) and the Fijian Barbarians. Naturally Toulouse won it too, beating Constanza in the final.

Four years later, to mark the centenary of Stade Toulousain, the club hosted a second International Masters featuring teams from Bath, Wellington and Queensland and the Soviet, Romanian, Fijian and Samoan national teams. Again, Toulouse won it, beating Queensland 21-10 in the final.

There was no third instalment of the Masters but when the idea of a European Cup was floated in the mid-90s, Toulouse embraced the concept as enthusiastically as anyone. Naturally enough, they won the inaugural 1995-96 tournament too, besting Cardiff 21-18 after extra time in the final in Cardiff.


Whereas the English club owners were Eurosceptics, and boycotted the tournament in 1999-2000 along with the Scots, Toulouse and the French remained in the competition. Granted, Toulouse were agitators in the Anglo-French coup which ousted the ERC but has failed to deliver on its promises. Yet were it not for the way Toulouse, along with the Irish provinces, have bought into the tournament, you’d wonder how the Champions Cup might have panned out.

They completed the double in 1995-96 but despite winning another three French Championships in the next five seasons the surprise was that Toulouse had to wait until 2003 for their second Heineken Cup when beating Perpignan in the final at the old Lansdowne Road.

Toulouse had Trevor Brennan in their ranks that day, the former Leinster lock/blindside flanker deducing that if you can’t beat them then join them. Toulouse had won three of the first four meetings although, admittedly, Brennan played a part in the 40-10 win over them in the 2001-02 season.

Toulouse had completed a comfy double in the second season of the tournament, by 34-25 in Donnybrook and 38-19 at home in what were eye-opening games for Leinster players and coaches alike.

Toulouse also avenged that defeat in Donnybrook by 43-7, with Brian O’Driscoll obliged to play at outhalf, when ending Leinster’s 15-match unbeaten streak that season.

That condemned Leinster to an away quarter-final which they lost in Leicester a fortnight later and as they suffered a semi-final loss at home to Perpignan, a pool exit and a quarter-final loss at home to Leicester, Toulouse made three successive finals, taking their haul to three trophies in 2005 when beating Stade Francais in Murrayfield.

“They were a sensational team,” admits Rob Kearney. “They were without doubt the poster boys of European rugby. They had the French flair and they were the team that Leinster always aspired to be because that was in the DNA of how Leinster used to play; in those earlier years really flashy, very skilful but could just never get the job done, probably until Checks [Michael Cheika] and gave us that bit of edge and toughness. But they [Toulouse] were the team that everybody wanted to be and emulate.

“They’ve definitely been one of the pillars in keeping the foundation and the strength of the tournament. We have to remember that the Heineken Cup from 2000 to 2012-13 was a much bigger competition than it is now.

“I just think it’s lost a little bit of its prestige. The format definitely isn’t what it used to be. The South Africans have helped the URC particularly but it’s taken away from that European rugby and so many French teams, once they’re out, their commitment level is zero.”

Be that as it may, Leinster’s 41-36 quarter-final victory away to Toulouse in the 2005-06 quarter-finals may have led to acute disappointment in the semi-final against Munster, but it was a landmark victory.

“That was huge, to go to France and beat the best team in the world,” says Kearney, who wore 22 that day, coming on as a blood replacement in the first-half and again for the last five minutes.

“I’ve two big memories from that week. Our Monday morning training session was pretty average and 15 minutes into that session Cheika and Brian brought us into a huddle and went absolute mental. The theme was: ‘Lads, this is Toulouse. We are playing a team of international standard and if we’re off in any way we’ll get beaten out the gate by 50 or 60 points.’ So there was a huge element of fear in that week,

“Secondly, we spent an enormous amount of time in training that week just defending the offload, and we had a couple of good power plays brought in by Cheika, and this was when not many teams were doing power plays.”

Leinster also out-Touloused Toulouse with the length of the pitch try by Denis Hickie after Felipe Contepomi instigated an attack off a turnover under his own posts. “Pure, typical Felipe,” says Kearney.

Two seasons later, Toulouse won 33-6 at home in round two and although Leinster won the return 20-13, the French club topped the pool and advanced.

“I remember I got charged down in the away game,” recalls Kearney with a rueful chuckle. “And the game was over after that. It was very cold, a hostile crowd and we played poorly but we played well in the home game, a lovely sunny day in Dublin.”

Having won their maiden crown in 2009, Leinster reached the semi-finals the following season but were beaten 26-16 in Toulouse when Johnny Sexton was ruled out with a jaw injury and Shaun Beirne started at outhalf.

“Shaun hadn’t played an enormous amount at 10, we weren’t playing great rugby — it was Checks’ last year — but we would have been ahead had Eoin Reddan’s try not been disallowed just before half-time. But then in the second half they blew us away.”

Even so, any inferiority complex had evaporated and under Joe Schmidt in the next season, 2010-11, Leinster beat Toulouse in the semi-finals at the Aviva Stadium, when Kearney was sidelined by a knee injury which threatened his career.

“We just wiped the board with them. Isa was playing unbelievably at 15 and I just remember just thinking: ‘How am I ever going to get this back off him?’” jokes Kearney.

But whereas Leinster went on to win back-to-back titles, Toulouse suffered three pool exits and three quarter-final defeats before failing to even qualify for the Champions Cup in 2017-18. That season, Leinster drew level with a fourth star.

Toulouse’s 28-17 win at home in round two the following season signalled their revival under Ugo Mola, although Leinster would avenge that defeat with comprehensive wins in both the return meeting and another Aviva semi-final.

Kearney missed the pool games with hamstring issues but, 13 seasons on from that 2006 quarter-final, started the 30-12 semi-final victory.

“We were peak Leinster then into the new Stuart [Lancaster] era. Our attacking rugby was brilliant. That’s when our phased play, which we needed to improve so much, really kicked in. We were playing Toulouse rugby, off the cuff, from anywhere, creating the extra man, comfortable in possession, going from sideline to sideline.

“But [Cheslin] Kolbe was playing for them and he was electric. He made a break three minutes into the game and I was left one-on-one with him, when you literally just gamble on a side, left or right. Thankfully he went to the left too! But that was a very complete performance and they never really put us under a huge amount of stress.”

Although Toulouse went one star ahead with their 2020-21 title, Leinster not only now lead the head-to-head eight to six, but have since added two more commanding semi-final wins at the Aviva in the last two seasons.

“They’ve been really impressive wins, but you get judged by how many trophies you win,” says Kearney, who reckons Saturday’s final is a toss of the coin.

“It will be as close a final you suspect as the last number of years. There’s no doubt that Leinster are not playing with the same fluidity to their game as they have done in the last few years but there has been a remarkable improvement in their defence.

“Your defence does win you games. The green shoot is that home performance against La Rochelle, when they really, really needed it, by far their best performance of the season. So it’s in there. They’re absolutely capable of it.

“There was a huge amount more riding on that La Rochelle game than just the scoreline. There was a legacy component to it for the next five years of Leinster rugby. We were probably a little surprised by the beating Leinster gave La Rochelle but we have to remember that La Rochelle’s preparation, being away for two weeks, was not ideal.”

If pushed, he sides with Leinster.

“They’re going to need their best performance of the season. Toulouse are flying high, Ntamack is starting to find form, Dupont is as influential as he’s ever been but their pack could tire. I expect Leinster not to kick much ball out of play and I think Toulouse will probably do the same to avoid Leinster having set-pieces.

“So I think ball-in-play time will be very nigh, which will suit Leinster,” says Kearney.

Even that illustrates the changing times between this tournament’s most decorated teams.


29/04/2023 SF Leinster Rugby 41 22 Stade Toulousain Aviva Stadium

14/05/2022 SF Leinster Rugby 40 17 Stade Toulousain Aviva Stadium

21/04/2019 SF Leinster Rugby 30 12 Stade Toulousain Aviva Stadium

12/01/2019 5 Leinster Rugby 29 13 Stade Toulousain RDS Arena

21/10/2018 2 Stade Toulousain 28 27 Leinster Rugby Stade Ernest Wallon

30/04/2011 SF Leinster Rugby 32 23 Stade Toulousain Aviva Stadium

01/05/2010 SF Stade Toulousain 26 16 Leinster Rugby Stadium de Toulouse

12/01/2008 5 Leinster Rugby 20 13 Stade Toulousain RDS Arena

18/11/2007 2 Stade Toulousain 33 6 Leinster Rugby Stade Ernest Wallon

01/04/2006 QF Stade Toulousain 35 41 Leinster Rugby Stadium de Toulouse

13/01/2002 6 Stade Toulousain 43 7 Leinster Rugby Stade Ernest Wallon

28/09/2001 1 Leinster Rugby 40 10 Stade Toulousain Energia Park

11/10/1997 6 Stade Toulousain 38 19 Leinster Rugby Stade Ernest Wallon

06/09/1997 1 Leinster Rugby 25 34 Stade Toulousain Energia Park