Conan and Leinster braced for ‘biggest test’ of Toulouse
Number eight says European champions excited in advance of key RDS clash
Jack Conan makes a break to set up his side’s first try during the Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse at Stade Ernest-Wallon in Toulouse, France. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Training invariably provides the first indicator that a team is mentally and physically attuned in the week ahead of a match. It takes various shapes and forms from hair-trigger tetchiness to clinical excellence and several points on the spectrum in between.
Jack Conan uses words like ‘anticipation,’ ‘excitement’ and ‘tension’ in offering a view from the inner sanctum of Leinster’s preparations ahead of Saturday’s crucial Heineken Champions Cup match against Toulouse at the RDS (1.0).
The first pool match between the sides last October produced a compelling spectacle and the reaction of the Toulouse coaches, players and supporters at the final whistle illustrated just what the victory meant to the French club.
Leinster knew what to expect going into that match but in abstract form; the reality comes with little addendums that don’t necessarily translate from the whiteboard.
Conan explained that they had spoken about Toulouse’s proud history and rugby culture and how a tilt at the reigning European champions on home turf would prove an irresistible motivational tool.
It’s once again a reference point for Leinster this week.
“In the last few days it has been building in everyone’s minds again since that loss away. We know the opportunity that exists in this game and we can’t let it pass us by again,” Conan said. But nor can the Irish province become suffocated by the fear of losing. There is the balance to be struck.
“Obviously we can’t play within ourselves and not go out and play the Leinster brand which has brought us to where we are now, the defending champions. We’ll look to play on top of them but we just need to be accurate and make sure we’re not forcing things, to take our time and build phases, to work them hard,” said the Leinster number eight.
“They’ve got some big lads, a physical pack so we’re going to try to really up the tempo and make sure we’re making them work as hard as we can and giving them a lot of different phases and shapes in attack to defend and really put them under a lot of pressure.
“We’ll be playing high tempo and making smart decisions, whether to throw the offload or kick and put the ball through and put them back under pressure. It’s going to be a big challenge but we need to find the balance between looking after the ball and making sure we’re playing enough to put them under pressure.
“Having said that, they are a better team now than when we played them last time. They have threats all across the park, fantastic ball-players, electric talent, especially in the midfield and the back field. It really is our biggest test in Europe to date, even [including] last year as well.
“It’s great we have them at home and we are excited. Big players rise to these big occasions. People are excited about the week ahead and what needs to be done. There’s a tension around the place and an excitement about how much hard work is going to be required to get the win on Saturday.”
Toulouse’s Jerome Kaino missed the first game because of suspension but he is likely to be in the starting team this Saturday and the presence of the former All Black provides a link with Conan and his predecessor in the Leinster number eight jersey, Jamie Heaslip.
The New Zealander beat Heaslip to the World U-21 Player of the Year in 2004 after the two had opposed one another in the Junior World Cup final that season and it is a testament to his longevity and quality that Kaino is still motoring.
When asked if he was an admirer Conan said: “Absolutely, he’s an incredible athlete. I mean, he’s 35 now at this stage and it’s great for him to be still competing at the top level of rugby at that age. I’m 26 and Jesus if I got to that age it would be a miracle.
“So it’s going to be a massive test and I’m looking forward to going up against him. He has shown quality over so many years, whether it is at six or eight. He’s a physical presence across the park, either on the ball or defensively. It just adds to their strength and quality in the back row.”
Leinster’s susceptibility to a slow start from time to time has received an airing and they can certainly ill-afford to replicate what transpired in Toulouse when they conceded two early penalties and then a try and another penalty to be 14-0 down after just 12-minutes.
Conan said: “I think for us when we talk about starting quick and being accurate it is making sure we look after the ball and don’t force the play and, if we don’t have the ball, to make sure our discipline is 100 per cent.”
He’s looking forward to home advantage too.
“It’s different in a sense to what it is like in the south of France but we appreciate everyone who comes to the RDS and makes themselves heard. It definitely adds to the atmosphere and it means so much to the team.”
All those little edges will matter come Saturday.