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Perfect Champions Cup final will be won in the mind – Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
Senior coach Jacques Nienaber during a Leinster Rugby captain's run at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Having the two best teams in the competition in the final is all you can ask for and it should be mouth-watering but it’ll be the top two inches that decides the outcome.

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When you look down the team sheet some of the very best players in the world are going head to head but the coaching influence in this one is huge and the mental aspect will play a massive role as well.

Leinster have beaten Toulouse in each of the last four meetings over the past five years, and that includes three semi-finals, so they have the wood on them in a way they haven’t against La Rochelle until this season.

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However, this Toulouse side has gone to another level and finals are a different beast. They have won all of the last eight finals they’ve played in going back to 2006, whereas Leinster have lost three Champions Cup finals in the past five years.

The final just hits different and I can say that speaking from experience as I was part of a Leicester team that lost three Premiership finals and a European Cup final in the space of four years, as well as winning a few over the years.

Leinster Toulouse Champions Cup final teams
Leinster’s Cian Healy larks around with a kick at Friday’s captain’s run in London (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

I know a fair few of these Leinster players were involved when they beat Racing on the biggest stage of all six years ago, as well as winning the URC regularly until a few years ago, but there is definitely a mental barrier for them at the moment that they have to overcome.

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They have been the best team in the competition between the pool stage and the final in recent years and dominated the URC from September to May in the last few campaigns too but have lost in some big knockout games.

That’s without mentioning Ireland’s latest World Cup quarter-final exit, which a hell of a lot of them were part of as well, so they know it’s a talking point and they’ll be absolutely desperate to get the monkey off their back.

The Irish province will be hoping that the presence of a certain Jacques Nienaber, who doesn’t have a bad record in finals, will help and he has certainly transformed the way they’re playing.

Of course, they’re still more than capable of brilliance in attack but there has been much more of a focus on implementing his blitz defence and they do say defence wins championships so we’ll see if that is the case.

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Toulouse will undoubtedly break the defensive line at times because they’re too good not to so it’ll be fascinating to see if Nienaber has managed to get Leinster’s scramble defence up to speed as well.

Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, right, and senior coach Jacques Nienaber before the Investec Champions Cup semi-final match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at Croke Park in Dublin. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

You generally have to score at least 30 points to beat the French giants so they’ll have to find some fluidity in attack and Garry Ringrose is obviously a massive loss in that department.

He hasn’t featured for his club since January because of a shoulder and they’ve been doing ok without him but he just poses more of a threat from outside centre and I actually think Toulouse might try to expose Robbie Henshaw in defence in the number 13 channel.

Fixture
Investec Champions Cup
Leinster
22 - 31
Full-time
Toulouse
All Stats and Data

Henshaw won the Six Nations title with Ireland this year in that position and is used to playing there but I do think he’s better suited to defending at inside centre and Toulouse will send two men down his channel.

The scrum-halves are clearly at the heart of everything these two teams do in attack and speed of ball is key to Jamison Gibson-Park, whereas you need to have at least two men on Antoine Dupont around the fringes of rucks at all times.

I don’t think James Ryan being left out for Jason Jenkins is that big a call but I do feel for Ross Molony being left out of the match day 23 completely after he started the semi-final against Northampton and has played such a big role this season.

O'Driscoll Leinster Champions Cup final team
Leinster’s Will Connors (left) with Jordan Larmour (Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Will Connors being preferred to Josh van der Flier is a huge decision though, even though it happened in the quarter-final against La Rochelle, and is a big indicator of how Leinster have changed under Nienaber.

The World Player of the Year from a couple of years ago is no lightweight but Connors is 6ft 5in and chops people for fun as well as being a threat at the breakdown and he has shone in both wins over La Rochelle this season.

Van der Flier is one of six forwards on the bench, which again shows the Nienaber influence, and that’s always a bit of a gamble but it’s one that might just pay off in the last 20 minutes as it has done so often for South Africa.

Toulouse’s main selection call by a mile is picking Blair Kinghorn over Thomas Ramos at full back and again it’s indicative of Ugo Mola’s approach as the Scot offers more options in attack, in addition to solidity under the high ball.

Thomas Ramos
Thomas Ramos has stated his desperation for adding a sixth star to Toulouse’s collection (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s a monumental decision to go into a final of this magnitude without Ramos though given he is an 84 per cent kicker at international level and has never missed more than two shots at goal in a Test in his career.

It looks an even bigger call when you consider that as many as 19 of the previous 28 Champions Cup finals having been won by seven points and you could have shifted Kinghorn to the wing but I’m sure Ramos will be on in a heartbeat if a couple of kicks go astray.

I was coached Mola at Brive and he hasn’t changed his principles since then. The best way to beat a blitz defence is to get the ball out the tackle and not let it get set and that’s exactly what he wants his players to do.

Whether it’s Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Pita Ahki, Paul Costes or any of the back three, you don’t often see them die with ball in hand and the forwards are just as adept at getting offloads away.

Manny Meafou is an absolute unit and his physicality is going to be vitally important but he targets soft shoulders so well and gets the ball away and Jack Willis has taken his game to new heights in terms of carrying as well.

Toulouse may not have their best goal-kicker on the field from the start but Leinster do and it’s a really big game for Ross Byrne as he steps out of Johnny Sexton’s shadow on the biggest stage in club rugby.

Ross Byrne
Ross Byrne of Leinster during the United Rugby Championship match between Leinster and Scarlets at the RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

He did, of course, start last year’s final with Sexton injured, and he has started URC finals in the past, but the great man has since retired and this is Byrne’s team now so it’s a big day for him to show that he can steer them to victory.

I think he gets some unfair criticism, and let’s not forget that Leinster have only won one Champions Cup in the last 12 years with Sexton at the helm, but he knows all eyes will be on him and Toulouse will target him.

The match-ups are mouth-watering and it looks like the perfect final at probably the best ground I’ve been to in many ways in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium so let’s hope it lives up to its billing.

The razzle dazzle of Toulouse will have its moments and Leinster might not have the muscle memory of winning recent finals but I just think it’ll be third time lucky for them after losing the last couple of finals and they’re going to edge it by six points.

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