Heineken Champions Cup Pool 1: Toulouse v Leinster
Kick off: Sunday, 3.15pm. Venue: Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse. How to follow: Live on BT Sport and The Irish Times liveblog.
In a tournament replete with a sense of nostalgia, the Heineken Champions Cup could not throw up a more garlanded head-to-head than this meeting of the tournament’s only quadruple winners. These two are French and Irish Euro aristocracy no less.
Not having met in seven years, the renewal of this rivalry seems particularly well timed. Toulouse were absent for the first time last season, and in their absence Leinster were emulating Stade’s fourth star.
On their return last week, Freddy Burns handed Toulouse their get-out-of-jail card, with a little help from the wily Maxime Medard's refusal to accept a seeming lost cause, and so home crowd and team alike will be buoyed as well as straining at the leash in welcoming the continent's most prized scalp.
In this, Leinster’s status has been enhanced after a mere one match, so stunning was the manner they eventually swarmed over Wasps in beating them 52-3. All has changed, changed utterly. Leinster are hot favourites, Toulouse the underdogs.
Yet this competition shows us that being away from home is an altogether different challenge, and Leo Cullen was correct in yesterday stressing that not too much should ever be read into a one-off game. But, intriguingly, this should tell us even more about Leinster's evident quality.
With Dan Leavy's calf still troubling him, last week's late replacement Rhys Ruddock retains his place in an unchanged pack, with Seán O'Brien to spring from the bench. Rob Kearney has been sidelined with a quad strain, meaning Jordan Larmour's exceptional footwork and ability to beat the first tackle is afforded even more scope at fullback, with Joe Tomane making his first start on the wing.
On the other wing, the head-to-head of James Lowe and Cheslin Kolbe, who each topped the charts for defenders beaten (eight) last week in somewhat contrasting styles (Lowe pace and strength, Kolbe with his fiendish stepping) could be one of the highlights of the weekend.
Toulouse have made five changes. The gifted 19-year-old Romain Ntamack, all footwork and inventiveness too, replaces Maxime Mermoz at inside centre, while Selevasio Tolofua (21) replaces the suspended 35-year-old Jerome Kaino. Their summer signing from Biarrtiz, Alban Placines comes into the back row, as do Clément Castets and Julien Marchand, for the suspended Lucas Pointud and former Italian captain Leonardo Ghiraldini.
The net effect of the five changes to the Toulouse line-up has been to reduce the average age of their starting line-up from 28.6 to 25.4. This may well mean they play with more energy and freedom, albeit much of their game has been coming through Kaino since he arrived.
Their game is now primarily about attacking. Through Thomas Ramos, Kolbe, Medard and the lively former winger Sofiane Guitoune they run back pretty much everything, and as they showed with two of their tries in Bath, transition effectively from turnovers into attack.
Leinster will need to be alert, for as Cullen said yesterday, Toulouse are "going back to their traditional roots". In many respects, Leinster have overtaken them, and on foot of the announcement that Nick McCarthy is the latest Leinster graduate to fly the coop for another province, namely Munster, Cullen admitted it was a challenge to stave off rival suitors in what he described as "a very competitive environment".
“If you think what’s coming up we hope there’s going to be a lot of players who go on to represent Ireland. It’s one of the things I’d like to see, 15 Leinster players running out in green. It would be good, wouldn’t it?” he said, smiling.
But he also admitted: “We’re aware of other teams close to here ringing up young players and selling them stories about what they are going to get somewhere else. We know that that’s there, the club is very aware of it and what we can do about it is limited.”
Keep on winning would help. One always felt that a revived but fitful Toulouse would struggle to match Leinster's sustained accuracy – be it at setpiece, breakdown or on the ball, but most of all a high tempo – over 80 minutes, especially with that frontrow, Scott Fardy and O'Brien to spring from the bench.
And little or nothing about last week dispelled that view. Leinster have the quality to go into the Stade Ernest Wallon and beat the four-time champions. Anything less would be disappointing. That’s where they’re at.
TOULOUSE: T Ramos; C Kolbe, S Guitoune, R Ntamack, M Médard; Z Holmes, S Bézy; C Castets, J Marchand (capt), C Faumuina, F Verhaeghe, J Tekori, R Elstadt, A Placines, S Tolofua.
Replacements: L Ghiraldini, D Faimafiliotama'ita'i Ainuu, M Van Dyk, P Gayraud, L Madaule, YHuget, A Dupont, A Bonneval.
LEINSTER: J Larmour; J Tomane, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (captain), L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan, R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.
Replacements: J Tracy, J McGrath, A Porter, S Fardy, S O'Brien, N McCarthy, R Byrne, R O'Loughlin.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Head to head: Played 9, Toulouse 5 wins, Leinster 4 wins.
Results so far: Toulouse – W 22-20 v Bath (a). Leinster _ W 52-3 v Wasps (h). Betting (Paddy Powers): 11/4 Toulouse, 20/1 Draw, 2/7 Leinster. Handicap odds (Toulouse +8pts) 10/11 Toulouse, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.