Ugo Mola’s re-born Toulouse side is a dangerous proposition, undefeated since shocking Leinster 28-27 in the first leg of pool play.
On that afternoon, Toulouse made 17 clean breaks to Leinster’s eight and offloaded 17 times to Leinster’s five. They won the turnover battle 5-4, and despite holding just 40% possession won by a solitary point.
On the face of it, the stats don’t mean much but show a glimpse into Toulouse’s philosophy under Mola. As Lancaster explained, over half of their tries have come from counter-attacks. It has become woven into their DNA, thriving on disruption and playing a free-flowing brand of rugby on the back of chaos.
Forcing turnovers and flipping the script quickly, keeping the ball alive as long as possible if they get a sniff. The offloading is critical to that, where players seem to have a license to throw 50-50’s once the ball has been won and a half break presents.
Instead of falling into a structure, Toulouse desires to keep the game in an unstructured state if they can. Fullback Thomas Romas (34 offloads last year), in particular, is critical in setting up kick-counter play and has a knack for freeing up the ball.
They still use the offloading game during phase play to open up teams using the likes of juggernaut lock Joe Tekori (36 offloads last year) and Florian Verhaeghe (14 offloads). There are promoters of the ball everywhere across the team, possessing a high-level of skill.
Toulouse may have had their best attacking weapon on the bench in their last meeting.
21-year-old halfback Antoine Dupont came on and played flyhalf, showing glimpses of his potential with sharp touches. He is a unique player that might just be the best halfback in the world in the next five years, with many similarities to Faf de Klerk.
Against Wasps he finished with two tries and a try assist, using his playmaking around the ruck and was rewarded with great support play. His running game is electric, which Toulouse finds many ways to switch on, and his defence is ferocious in the de Klerk fashion.
Toulouse would be wise to start him in this vein of form and throw something different at Leinster they didn’t have to deal with in the first match.
Make no mistake, this Toulouse side is a strong defensive outfit. They dared Leinster to test the edge early and forced them into touch almost every time, which lead to frustration and further errors for the visitors. Although Leinster were able to arrest control in the second half and play with periods of stability, Toulouse were able to disrupt them just enough to win. The final intercept was a heads-up play made based on the predictability of Leinster’s carries.
One of the leaders of that defensive effort was hooker Julien Marchand, a young energetic force that possesses an all-around game promising world-class potential. He defends stoutly in close channels, is strong over the ball, has brilliant ball skills, a large motor, surprising burst of speed and offers powerful carries. He won two crucial penalties over the ball in the first match that contributed to three points and rubbed out one Leinster red zone possession. He is a mobile athlete, which is a characteristic of the youth in Toulouse’s tight five unit.
They have youthful French players that provide the speed at which the pack can play to complement the experienced players like Charlie Fau’muina, Tekori, Jerome Kaino who bring the physicality. Aforementioned lock Verhaeghe is just 21-year-old, as is number eight Selevasio Tolofua, while Marchand is just 23.
A trip to the RDS will be a tough ask but if any team is capable of doing it, it is Toulouse, who is one of the top two sides in the Top 14. With doubts over Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner’s availability, James Lowe’s suspension, Leinster is arguably in a vulnerable position without some of their biggest stars for a pressure-cooker Pool 1 decider.
Leinster need accuracy and discipline which has been amiss recently, as demonstrated in the visit to Thomond Park just before the New Year. A second loss to Toulouse wouldn’t end Leinster’s drive for five, but it would tarnish the invincibility aura that is beginning to erode and make a fifth European title that much more difficult to win this year.
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