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Hamilton: Leinster upset is likely

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Hamilton: There is an energy around Toulouse that has caught my imagination

LEINSTER v TOULOUSE – Sunday, 3.15pm (Aviva Stadium)

It’s hard winning back-to-back European titles. I should know having featured in Saracens’ two-in-a-row in 2016 and 2017. Leinster, though, have two things in their favour: they have big-game players who know how to win and they are at home again at Aviva Stadium.

They are a quality side and their legacy illustrates this, but going back-to-back is tough as teams are coming for you. There is going to come a time when you fall off that perch. At Saracens we had quality throughout the team and amazing finishers on the bench who came on and knew how to close the game out. Have Leinster got that? We’ll soon find out.

The Sean O’Brien situation is interesting. Never in a million years did I think he would be leaving Leinster to go to a team like London Irish. That is no disrespect to London Irish, but at the moment they are playing their rugby in the Championship.

With O’Brien wanting to go there and finish his career, he seems to have succumbed to the fact that injuries have taken their toll and it is now time to cash in. Look at the very best Irish players, they don’t normally consider doing this.

Johnny Sexton did go to Racing, but it wasn’t just to cash in. It was to make a statement as well, to play in his prime in a tournament that was outside his comfort zone. In contrast, O’Brien is off to London Irish. That says to me that he feels he is on his way out.

I have massive respect for O’Brien, for what he has done in the game and the way he has conducted himself. But he has had a shocking time with injury because he plays so hard, so physical and so fast that naturally his body is going to suffer.

There have been a few stop-start seasons for him since the 2017 Lions. Can he turn it on for one game? I’m sure he probably can but you want more from him.

With his unbelievable pedigree, you want him to be at the forefront of this Leinster side, to be at the heart of everything they do. They play an off-loading game and he’s brilliant at that in the contact. O’Brien in his prime was also one of the best defenders in the world over the ball and Leinster will be hoping for a reminder of this.

Leinster are the team everyone is gunning for. I don’t necessarily think what Ulster did in the tightly-fought quarter-final is a blueprint for Toulouse because this Leinster team is so well coached, but I believe Toulouse have that extra little bit of flair.

There is an upset on the cards here – Toulouse are going to win and it will give us one of the biggest upsets in recent European Cup history. This French outfit is again a monster of a team with their style of play. You only have to look at their quarter-final against Racing and how they won that with 14 men for the majority of the game after losing the red-carded Zack Holmes.

Look also at how they are playing in the Top 14 and the atmosphere surrounding the club – everyone saw the reaction when Guy Noves came on the screen last weekend and the applause he got. There is an infectious energy there that is just increasing.

They are back to delivering the kind of rugby you expect from a French powerhouse, a French giant. They have got a strong enough defence and their quality in attack is summed  up by the world-class Cheslin Kolbe. Young guys like Romain Ntamack and Antopine Dupont have also been outstanding and were a rare bright spot in France’s terrible Six Nations.

With all this in mind, I have a sneaky feeling Toulouse can do it. I don’t think Leinster have been playing well. We saw what Glasgow did to them last weekend, and they didn’t impress either against Treviso and Ulster.

I don’t think their confidence is as high as it should be going into a semi-final. Last year when they won they were just on a roll, both internationally with the backbone of that Grand Slam Ireland team and at the club where they picked it up with that quarter-final win against Saracens. They just looked unstoppable whereas now it’s going to be a real test of character.

VERDICT – I’m going for Toulouse by 10. If Toulouse are going to win it they are going to have to win it comfortably. Leinster are too good not to close out a tight game, so Toulouse are going to have to go there and win well.

WATCH: The RugbyPass fly-on-the-wall look at the 2018 PRO14 final

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Hamilton: There is an energy around Toulouse that has caught my imagination