Matt Williams: Toulouse’s refusal to follow the mob paying dividends

French side have taken a leaf out of Leinster’s book by creating locally produced talent

A few seasons ago Toulouse had lost their way. Their traditional “Toulousain” style of attacking rugby was deemed by the mindless followers of fashion as too old school.

It won’t work against “modern” defensive systems was the perceived wisdom of the ignorant and mindless mob.

The once innovative world leaders lost the true north of their rugby compass. For several seasons Toulouse wandered aimlessly in the rugby wilderness, where coaches simply copy what other teams have done.

Then Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola made two bold leadership decisions. Firstly, he created the long-term plan of returning "Les Rouge et Noir" to the rugby philosophy created by the genius of their founding coaches Pierre Villepreux, Jean-Claude Skrella and Guy Novès.

Dupont personified his Toulousain team's impressive, warrior-like commitment to the physical battle at the tackle and the breakdown

The coaching philosophy of these great luminaries was to train their attacking players to dance within the chaos of the defence and embrace it as a valued partner. Then in the midst of that defensive chaos, they patiently taught their players the art of quality attacking decision-making.

Toulouse stopped following the mob and instead followed their DNA to play beautiful, creative, running rugby. The second decision was written on a presentation that I have seen from Toulouse, which literally stated to “copy Leinster” and create locally produced academy talent.

Fast forward a few years and Mola has his club once again playing successful Toulousain attacking rugby and nine of this year's French Grand Slam winning team were products of the Toulouse academy. The 2020-21 season saw Toulouse lift both the Bouclier de Brennus, in winning the Top 14 Championship, and the Heineken Cup. Toulouse have now won both competitions more than any other club.

It has to be noted that this season Toulouse have not been in perfect balance. But the concerning news for Munster is that last weekend in the Top 14 against Ronan O'Gara's La Rochelle, Toulouse put in their best shift of the season.

Much of this was due to the immense play of Antoine Dupont. With astonishing acceleration and agility, he created gaps that simply had not existed a split second beforehand. Dupont also displayed his immense power in contact when he hit a charging Gregory Alldritt with a technically brilliant head on tackle that not only stopped the powerful French number eight in his tracks but drove him backwards.

Dupont personified his Toulousain team’s impressive, warrior-like commitment to the physical battle at the tackle and the breakdown.

While the Toulouse defensive line was outstanding, La Rochelle proved that short kicks in behind that solid line can expose the Toulouse backfield. If Joey Carberry can bring his well-educated boot into play, there are opportunities for Munster to attack.

The recent confirmation of Graham Rowntree as Munster's future head coach and the uplifting news of Mike Prendergast's return as attack coach has provided some desperately required direction for the side's future leadership. Both sets of news will create a far more focused player group compared to a month ago.

Despite these positives, it will be a monumental task for Munster to defeat this highly talented Toulouse team today at the Aviva. If they can, it will go down as one of Munster’s greatest victories in their long love affair with the Heineken Cup.

Leicester challenge

Leo Cullen's men have a very different mission. Leicester coach Steve Borthwick has rapidly rebuilt the once crumbled walls of fortress Welford Road. The Tigers have won 15 straight games at home, which is an impressive number for any club.

No one understands the level of ferocity that the local Tigers supporters bring to Welford Road better than Cullen. Across the last 25 years, the only time Leo has ventured outside of the Leinster environment was when as a player he left Dublin for the austere charms of Welford Road.

When he returned to Leinster a few seasons later, Cullen was a significantly harder and tactically more skilful player. Most importantly, the Leicester experience accelerated the development of Cullen’s substantial leadership qualities.

All of Cullen’s acquired wisdom will be required against Leicester who are seeking to regain their place as part of the European aristocracy. For the Tigers to revive their former European glory, smacking Leinster on their own patch of dirt is a good place to start.

As a player and coach, Leo has always placed Leinster first and himself second. There is no greater example of this than when he made the tactical decision to empower assistant coach Stuart Lancaster to stay in Dublin with their match day 23, while Leo accepted his responsibility as the "Boss" to be with his young team that travelled to South Africa.

This allowed the senior Leinster players who have worked so hard across a tough Six Nations campaign time to fully recover. The two weeks in Dublin also provided Leinster's leading players with a long and valuable window of preparation for the knockout stages of the season. Trophies are won in May so that's when club players need to peak.

All of this was enabled via great planning, quality leadership and excellent selections that have been the hallmarks of Cullen’s coaching. The core tenet of Cullen’s game plan for May is tempo. Leinster believe that if they can accurately execute their attacking system at a lightning pace, for extended periods of time, then few opposition defensive systems can cope with them.

History tells us that when Leinster get it right they win. With dry conditions forecast in the midlands, Leinster are planning on grabbing the Tigers by the tail and running them ragged.

Leicester’s plan will be the polar opposite. The Tigers know that in past European knockout games both Saracens and La Rochelle have defeated Leinster by disrupting the flow of their prolific attack with extreme physicality. The Tigers will be planning on doing the same. However, this is a task is easier said than done.

Without a doubt, the key area for both Irish teams to progress to the semi-finals will be their accuracy at the ruck.

The team that wins the race for space and successfully dominates the gap between the ball carrier and his next supporting player will determine victory or defeat. Leinster want to speed up their ruck pace, Munster want to slow Toulouse down and the referees want to penalise everyone. Always an interesting mix.

With four high-quality matches on offer, the Heineken Cup quarter-finals is my favourite weekend on the club rugby calendar. Yet the rugby public are faced with the unfathomable absurdity of not being able to watch all four matches live.

The overlapping scheduling of the La Rochelle and Leinster fixtures is hopefully the last madness we will have to endure from the EPRC organisers in what has been their administrative annus horribilis.