Just as in football a Manchester City and Liverpool European final might have pleased their British and Irish fans, but not many outside of those groups. Football, as in rugby, likes to see European competition between rival countries as much as clubs.
With three French teams and Leinster remaining in the European Champions Cup, the neutrals outside of France will for no other reason than “vive la difference” hope to see Irish and French represented in the Marseille final on May 28th.
While two French teams would flourish in terms of attendance with a home final, back in 2003 the organiser’s generosity knew no limits when they invited a posse of journalists down to Perpignan for a few days to evangelise an all-French final that year in Dublin.
Following lunch in a restaurant in the Mediterranean town of Collioure, where Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso used to frequent and apparently use their work as payment for the food, European Rugby sold Dublin for the final match between Perpignan and Toulouse in Lansdowne Road.
The crowd of 28,600 was, outside the Covid-affected games in 2020 and 2021, the lowest of any Heineken Cup final apart from the first in 1996 in Cardiff Arms Park. The inaugural final match played in early January featuring Cardiff and Toulouse drew 21,800.
Leinster don’t do modest crowds for big European games and have become accustomed to heady confrontations with French clubs, especially Toulouse. As much as it is the 13th meeting between the clubs in the European arena, it is the fourth time in competition the sides will have met at the semi-final stage.
The only two teams that have played each other in Europe more often, a testament to their consistent ability to qualify, are Munster and Castres. They have faced off 16 times at all stages since the first time they met in the competition 26 years ago.
In terms of what to expect, both clubs know each other’s history. It is a little like attending your fourth child’s wedding. At a personal level, you have learned who the other principles are, what their character is like and you arrive with some add-ons for the speech.
But it is all conducted with a very different bunch of people. In character it is not the same wedding but in general aspect it is similar to the previous three.
The first time Leinster met Toulouse at the semi-final stage was in 2010 under coach Michael Cheika, the season after they had won their first European trophy, beating Leicester Tigers in Murrayfield.
Joe Schmidt was to arrive later that year with prop Cian Healy the only remaining Leinster player from that day. Shaun Berne, whose father had moved the family from Belfast during the Troubles years to live in Australia, was the starting Leinster outhalf and current Leinster head coach Leo Cullen the team captain.
For Toulouse, Maxime Médard, who left the pitch for a HIA last week against Munster, was on the bench. But as the game unfolded in France, Leinster could not halt Toulouse progressing to their fourth European win.
Jamie Heaslip got the Leinster try with Berne and Rob Kearney adding the other points from the boot as Toulouse won 26-16, David Skrela kicking six and grabbing a try for himself in the win.
The following season was to be a repeat except Toulouse had to play where it is being staged today, in the Aviva Stadium. By then Jonathan Sexton had moved into the outhalf position for Berne.
Devin Toner and Ian Madigan, the only players other than Sexton still playing professionally, started on the bench and were not used in the 32-23 win.
By then Leinster were a towering force in European rugby and but for the defeat by Toulouse in the previous year’s semi-final might have won four European titles in succession.
After Leinster made it through to meet Northampton in the final, Brian O’Driscoll articulated the province’s mindset that would become familiar to many ears.
“I suppose it was an important one [try] – and I’ll take the credit for falling over the line with the ball. I feel that we definitely fronted up when he needed to,” said O’Driscoll.
“We didn’t play great – and we weren’t at our best – but we showed great resolve and we know that we haven’t won anything yet. We shouldn’t be allowing silly tries like that [first try] and we have to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.
“Sometimes you have to learn from defeats in the past, but in the semi-final stage it’s all about getting over the line and we’re delighted that we managed that.”
Another repeating refrain was Sexton kicking 22 of Leinster’s 32 points while the other try-scorer, Heaslip, was named man of the match.
The third semi-final against Toulouse came a year after Leinster had beaten Racing 92 to win their fourth European trophy in 2018. A home quarter-final win over Ulster catapulted the Irish and French European aristocrats into another meeting in Aviva Stadium.
Many of the familiar faces that played that semi-final will again line out this afternoon. On the day, a fit captain and agitator supreme Sexton was back in command, while James Lowe’s sixth try in eight European appearances, combined with a Luke McGrath maul effort and Sexton’s assured kicking, had Leinster 17-6 ahead at half-time.
Toulouse fullback Thomas Ramos kicked a brace of penalties and kept Toulouse in the contest as both sides coped well during first-half sin-binning orders for Richie Gray and Robbie Henshaw.
Rhys Ruddock's replacement on the day, after he was withdrawn having being struck with illness, was Scott Fardy, who crossed in the 52nd minute. Penalties from Thomas Ramos and replacement Romain Ntamack either side of the try kept Toulouse alive.
But man of the match Sexton completed his 12-point haul with 15 minutes remaining, Leinster keeping a frustrated Toulouse try-less and adding a late Ross Byrne penalty as they advanced 30-12 to their fifth European final in 11 years.
On the day, a 21-year-old talent, Caelan Doris, came on to make his Champions Cup debut during the final minutes, with young academy scrumhalf Hugh O’Sullivan also sprung from the bench.
A fourth semi-final meeting now and after 12 years in the making, it is once more Euro glam rugby. This year, though, no trips required for French media to the Bridge Bar in Ballsbridge to drum up Aviva numbers for the two dedicated arch rivals.
Leinster v Toulouse head-to-head semi-finals
2010: Leinster lost 26-16, Le Stadium
2011: Leinster won 32-23, Aviva Stadium
2019: Leinster won 30-12, Aviva Stadium
2022: Leinster v Toulouse, Aviva Stadium