Both clubs are seeking a record fifth title and while Leinster enter the clash as the reigning champions, this is revitalised Toulouse’s first appearance at this stage of the tournament since 2011 when they were ironically beaten in Dublin by an Irish province that was then heading towards clinching their second of four titles.
The French side booked their ticket in this last-four round with an epic 22-21 victory over Top 14 rivals Racing 92 in Paris, Toulouse somehow managing to find the resolve and the composure to play nearly an hour of that splendid knockout contest with just 14 players after Zack Holmes’ red card.
Leinster had a lucky escape in their all-Ireland quarter-final, taking advantage of a jaw-dropping Jacob Stockdale mistake to narrowly defeat Ulster 21-18. They have since failed to win in the PRO14, drawing at the RDS to Treviso and then losing to Glasgow. Now they face a side that beat them in Toulouse in an early pool match before revenge was exacted in Dublin in January.
With the two teams named for Sunday’s clash, RugbyPass has compiled its Composite XV from the 30 ready to start at the Aviva…
15. Thomas Ramos (Toulouse)
It has been an inconsistent season for veteran Rob Kearney, the incredible high of another win over New Zealand mixed with the low of being excluded on other occasions for Ireland and Leinster. Wales stitched the 33-year-old up beautifully for their sole Grand Slam match try and while he scored twice last weekend versus Glasgow, Kearney’s defence is a concern. In contrast, 23-year-old Ramos is having the season of his life, a handful in attack and full of fearless exuberance on the back foot.
14. Jordan Larmour (Leinster)
Here’s a similar match-up to full-back and again you’re compelled to go with the younger man. As with Ramos, there has been an immense excitement surrounding the dancing feet possessed by Larmour whose every touch sends a sense of expectation coursing through a stadium. It’s the sort of pressure that could have affected the 22-year-old in his second season, but not a jot. Missing from the quarter-final, 32-year-old Yoann Huget is back in the Toulouse XV and while his France try at Twickenham demonstrated he still has moments of brilliance, he’s not producing them consistently enough these days.
13. Sofiane Guitoune (Toulouse)
Sift through the RugbyPass Player Index and no Toulouse player scores higher than Guitoune who, at 30, is in his midfield prime. His influence has been a pivotal reason why Toulouse have been flying this season in Europe and in the Top 14 and his form in recent weeks has continue along an upward trajectory. Guitoune’s selection is no major slight on Leinster’s Garry Ringrose. He, too, carries a serious threat, but the 24-year-old’s defensive solidity isn’t yet near where you would expect it to be for a player on the scene for a couple of years.
12. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
Just eight months separates Henshaw in age from Toulouse’s Pita Ahki, but their careers have had very different developments. Whereas the Irishman has earned his stripes at all levels, even touring with the Lions in 2017, Ahki has had a wandering time where he has struggled to prove himself at various pit-stops, including Henshaw’s former club Connacht. The New Zealander with Tongan origins has finally found a home from home in Toulouse, where he has recently signed a contract extension. However, despite recent injury frustrations, Henshaw is still by far the more complete player.
11. Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)
As what happens in Ireland when Larmour comes onto the ball, the reaction in French stadiums when Kolbe takes possession is similarly electrifying. He packs a powerful punch for such a diminutive presence and his ability to generate space when none should exist is evidence that rugby remains a sport for players of all sizes. Despite all this kudos, Kolbe’s selection in this Composite XV wasn’t straightforward. James Lowe has his own style of rich entertainment and is also full of tries. His defence, though, is what lets him down compared to Kolbe.
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
Antoine Dupont, who starts ahead of Holmes, ticks most of the same boxes compared to Sexton. He is hugely influential, possessing multiple attacking threats that require monitoring. However, don’t expect him to be a match-winner off the kicking tee which is what Sexton has been all throughout his career. It’s strange to note that Sunday will be Sexton’s first Leinster appearance since a December run at Munster, a sign of how injuries and Ireland duty have kept him from Leo Cullen’s plans. He is needed this weekend, though, and gets our Composite nod at out-half.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 18, 2019
9. Sebastien Bezy (Toulouse)
Bezy checks in 12kgs lighter than opposite number Luke McGrath, but the influence he exerts on Toulouse is far greater than what his opponent brings to Leinster. Having soldiered throughout the doldrum years with the French club, this has been the season for Bezy to flower. He has been the heart of engineering a revival that has made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice and he is currently ranked by the RugbyPass Player Index as the No1 scrum-half in the world. Unlike Conor Murray who stands out at Ireland in partnership with Sexton, the dynamic at Leinster is different as scrum-half McGrath is too frequently viewed from the perspective of living in Sexton’s shadow.
1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
This is the first head-to-head where a gulf in class can be evidenced, the long-in-the-tooth Healy a far more treasured operator than the youthful Clement Castets, who at 22 is still taking baby-steps in the jungle that is professional front row rugby. Whereas Healy’s injury-free revitalisation in recent seasons has been of a vintage to leave 2017 Lion Jack McGrath packing his backs and heading up the Irish M1 to Ulster, Castets has only been getting the No1 Toulouse shirt on a rotational basis. This is the biggest game of his fledging career, unlike Healy who has played and succeeded in a library-full of stellar fixtures.
2. Sean Cronin (Leinster)
This is another positional battle where the balance clearly tips in Leinster’s favour. Cronin has been around the blocks and has collected the silverware compared to inexperienced Peato Mauvaka, whom Toulouse have had to rely on following the serious injury suffered by Julian Marchand at the Six Nations. That was the tournament that exposed the one huge weakness in Cronin’s locker – he isn’t a reliable Test level starter having lived far too long in the shadow of Rory Best and his throwing in Rome left Joe Schmidt throwing him under a bus and axing him from the Ireland squad.
3. Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse)
Tadhg Furlong is ranked fourth best in the RugbyPass RPI for very good reasons – whereas his form last season coming off the Lions was out of this world, he has had a few average outings this term by his own exceptionally high standards. The Ireland and Leinster teams who could do no wrong in 2018 now have questions surrounding them and Furlong is one of those key players who has to provide the answers, starting Sunday. In Faumuina, Toulouse are coming to Dublin with a doughty operator whose form has him ranked No1 in the RPI. He is a serious threat.
4. Devin Toner (Leinster)
Richie Arnold is your Mr Average compared to Toner, even though the Leinster lock is only making his way back from injury. Arnold was one of the Australian players who had the rug pulled from under him when Western Force were ejected from Super Rugby and there have stop-offs at the Brumbies and in Japan before he pitched up for 2019 service at Toulouse. He has quickly become part of the furniture there, but his level of influence as a starter doesn’t hold the same cachet to what Toner means for Leinster. Following his Six Nations-ruining injury, the Irishman is primed to make up for lost time.
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
It’s been an interesting second season for Ryan. Having been the man who couldn’t lose during his breakthrough campaign, he’s now experiencing some of the emotions on the other side of the ledger. That will be more power to him in the long run, but he heads into this European semi-final determined that his billing as the world’s No1 lock, according to the RugbyPass RPI, will be fully highlighted at the Aviva. Richie Gray is no slouch, though. The Scot is well thought of, the type of guy forwards go into the trenches with as you know he will tackle all day long regardless of the circumstances.
6. Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse)
If Rynhardt Elstadt was to be believed, Toulouse arrived at the RDS treating last January’s pool match as a final. Their second-half fade out demonstrated that it was no final and their body language after the final whistle was that of a team that wasn’t hugely hurt by the loss. Now they are back in Dublin and that attitude must change. Expect the hard-nosed South African to part his full play. He is a robust presence in the same mould as Rhys Ruddock, but is more influential to Toulouse than Ruddock is to Leinster as he is a back row that has lost out in the selection stakes far too often when all options are fit.
7. Joe Tekori (Toulouse)
Tekori’s match-up versus Sean O’Brien is very interesting from the perspective that his inclusion in the back row is a roll of the dice from Toulouse. For much of the season the Samoan has been present in the French club’s second row, but they have now changed tack and are prepared to put him in at openside to counteract the potential influence of O’Brien. The Irish forward’s powers have been on the wane this season and there’s no sign yet of a return to the form expected from him. He has much to catch up on.
8. Jerome Kaino (Toulouse)
Once famed for stellar southern hemisphere purchases, Toulouse have bought a cart-load of journeymen professionals in the past number of years. Their acquisition of Kaino, though, is a return to getting serious bang for their buck as the All Black has churned out a series of top notch performances in getting the club firing on all cylinders. His influence isn’t restricted to the pitch either, as he has been a key influence in helping the Toulouse young guns along. Whereas Kaino is a proven competitor, Jack Conan’s form can at times be inconsistent. He’s undoubtedly talented, his ball-carrying a standout feature, but his stumbling block is demonstrating how good he is in every match he plays.
Two hard-nosed back-rowers come face-to-face ?? when @leinsterrugby and @StadeToulousain collide for the third time in the #ChampionsCup ?@jeromekaino has been a rock in defence ? whilst @JackConan1 has terrorised defences with ball in hand ?
Who comes out on top? ???? pic.twitter.com/TQTl7VyWjQ
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 17, 2019
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