The theory goes that Toulouse aren't quite playing to the same high standard as this point a year ago when they went on to complete a Heineken Champions Cup and French championship double for only the second time in the club's illustrious history; that they look to be running on empty a little. The theory may have some substance.
For Toulouse to have played 100 minutes against Munster last week before their penalty shoot-out win whereas Leinster won pulling up inside the regulation 80 minutes in Welford Road reflected the demands on the two sets of players over the course of the season.
Last season Toulouse were indisputably worthy champions of both France and Europe. In the Champions Cup they won five matches out of five played, beating Ulster, Munster and Clermont away before overcoming Bordeaux-Begles in the semi-finals at home and La Rochelle in the Twickenham decider.
In this campaign they have won only two matches out of five in 80 minutes to somehow reach the semi-finals again, albeit there are some unnerving similarities given they’ve again overcome Ulster and Munster on the road to extend their unbeaten run on Irish soil to five games.
On the flip side of playing for 100 minutes last week, Toulouse will have been buoyed by digging so deep, while a trip to Dublin and the Aviva will hold no unknowns.
“There is bound to be a bit of fatigue because we don’t play 100-minute matches of such intensity every week,” admitted fullback and first-choice goalkicker Thomas Ramos. “Psychologically, mentally, these are moments that wear out a little but are so good to take that you come out with a banana (smile) and the desire to switch to the next week.”
The squad has done little or no training this week, and flew over on Thursday, a day earlier than for the Munster game, although whether last week will stand to them or cause them fatigue only this afternoon will tell, as head coach Ugo Mola has admitted.
“Unfortunately, we can only know that at the end of the match. We decided to really recover this week. We want to focus on mental and physical freshness. We only really trained today, and with a moderate intensity. It has not escaped anyone that our workforce is in trouble, especially at the back. Unfortunately, we do not have the desired player returns,” added Mola in reference to their injury list.
The Toulouse head coach can only dream of having his frontline squad based in their training centre at their Stade Ernest-Wallon base for a fortnight without matches, as was the case with Leinster before last week’s quarter-final.
Reflecting on last week’s dramatic events in Dublin, Mola said: “Afterwards, I’m always torn between the weight of the high level which leads you to galvanize yourself and gain experience, and the need for high level recovery. So, you have to find that right balance. I won’t hide from you that I would have liked a weekend between the two games, but that’s how it is.”
The contrast in games and minutes played this season is striking. If you look at the nine Toulouse players who played against Ireland and contributed to the French Grand Slam and compare them to their Leinster counterparts, all bar Ramos has played more than his opposite number.
That is largely because Hugo Keenan, akin to Garry Ringrose and Caelan Doris this season, plays 80 minutes nearly every time for Leinster and Ireland, whereas Ramos was restricted to three brief appearances off the bench with France. Even the indefatiguable, ever-improving and (touch wood) injury free Josh van der Flier has played fewer games and minutes than Anthony Jelonch, who has been sidelined with injury on a couple of occasions.
Take the halfbacks. Admittedly, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are younger men, but even so Jamison Gibson-Park has played seven matches and over 700 minutes less than Dupont, while Johnny Sexton has accumulated less than half the matches and minutes as Ntamack has done.
Injuries can also be a factor, but there’s no doubt the game management of Leinster’s Irish contingent is better, and another benefit is that they will all be aboard the planes to New Zealand for this summer’s three-test, five match tour whereas the Toulouse players will be excused duty on France’s two-Test tour of Japan.
This is also where Leinster's unequalled production line of talent and strength in depth comes into play. They have used 59 players this season and the capacity to rest frontliners is due to the utter dependability of James Tracy, Michael Ala'alatoa, Rhys Ruddock, Scott Penny, Max Deegan (more so last season given his injury this season), Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne and others, as well as the latest youngsters coming through such as Ciaran Frawley and Tommy O'Brien.
Another factor in Toulouse’s apparent weariness may be the so-called ‘curse of the bouclier’. Such as the huge task in winning the French Champions over the course of a 26-match regular season and two or three play-off rounds, and the length of their domestic season, that the champions are often incapable of going to the well again the following season.
Toulouse are seeking to become the first club in a decade to win the bouclier de brennus in successive seasons since they themselves did so a decade ago, and many champion teams in the intervening period have struggled to make any kind of a defence of their crown.
Whereas Toulouse finished last season by beating La Rochelle in a tryless French championship final at the Stade de France on June 25th, Leinster had signed off on their campaign fully two weeks beforehand, and that was with a fourth successive game in the Rainbow Cup.
Granted, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan went on the Lions tour, while injury ruled out Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher did not play, but it was perhaps a blessing in disguise for Leinster (and Ireland) that the likes of Sexton, Ringrose and James Ryan were not selected. Sexton was also rested from the summer tests at home to USA and Japan, as effectively was Ringrose, who instead underwent shoulder surgery.
Six of Saturday’s line-up featured in the first summer Test against Japan, with van der Flier and Gibson-Park rested for the USA game. Leinster’s frontliners also made later, more gradual returns at the start of this season.
By contrast, all bar Jelonch of Toulouse’s nine-man French contingent pitched up for their opening game of the season on September 5th, a full-on reprise of the French and European finals away to a fired-up La Rochelle, when winning 20-16. Leinster’s frontliners returned against the Bulls on September 25th.
Initially Toulouse continued where they left off, as that was the springboard for a six-game winning streak to the start of their season, before the demands on their frontline players during the November window and in the Six Nations increasingly began to take its toll.
So, whereas last season they arrived at this same semi-final juncture in the Champions Cup with 15 wins from their previous 18 matches, a year on they’ve won just five of their last 17 games if one counts last week as a draw.
With just two rounds remaining in the Top 14, Toulouse have won four games fewer (13) and lost three more (11) than in 26 games last season.
While they have been more prolific in Europe (averaging three tries per game) domestically, without the Cheslin Kolbe X-factor (in 21 games last season he scored nine tries and a crucial long-range drop goal in the French final) they have struggled to break down or open up teams. Hence they have also scored far less tries (56 in 24 games compared to 92 in 26 games last season) and points (532 compared to 767). Yet they have been more obdurate in grinding out results, conceding both far less tries (38 compared to 53) and points (417 compared to 557).
Asked this week if Toulouse measure the physical condition of their players, Mola said: “Yes, we tinker hard. We have the ability to measure with great precision the freshness of our players. Staffing requires a lot of people. We realize that there is a lot of recurrence (injury) and breakage. What worries me a bit is that the recovery time is also linked to the calendar and that this “calendar war” is not yet settled.
Hence, while the suspension of Argentinian winger Juan Cruz Mallia for his red card against Ulster was completed last week, and Zack Holmes has also returned from injury, Mola went into this week with a casualty list featuring Arthur Bonneval, Santiago Chocobares, Tim Nanai-Williams, Nelson Épée and Sofiane Guitoune, and last week in the Aviva Stadium injuries struck Maxime Médard, Dimitri Delibes and Baptiste Germain.
“As long as we think that a player only recovers when he is injured, we are on the wrong track,” said Mola. “This is the most terrible thing in our sport. Things will only change when a major nation finds itself penalized because those major players are injured by the time deadlines roll around. And there, people will cry wolf to change the calendars, when this is already the case. We were only able to cut one week in November and one in February. Injuries are therefore logical and unfortunately the state of freshness will be what it is.”
Yet, somehow, they are still standing in the semi-finals.
Indeed, if Toulouse do go on to retain their Champions Cup and claim a sixth star, then as Diego Maradona once said when Argentina, the 1986 winners, defied all expectations in reaching the 1990 World Cup final: "This will be one to tell the grandchildren about."