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Three talking points as Leinster and Toulouse name cup final teams

By Liam Heagney
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)

With the confirmation on Friday of the respective match day 23s, all is now in readiness for Saturday’s heavyweight Investec Champions Cup final in London.

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In the blue corner, we have Leinster, the four-time champions from Ireland who are looking to strike gold following defeats in the 2022 Marseille and 2023 Dublin finals to La Rochelle.

Toulouse, meanwhile, occupy the red corner and they are heading to Tottenham confident of adding a sixth star to their jersey – and a first since their 2021 title win over La Rochelle at Twickenham.

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Here, RugbyPass sizes up some of the major team selection talking points:

Saving Ryan for later
The legendary Brian O’Driscoll got the mathematics correct when asked by RugbyPass in midweek to predict the number of changes Leo Cullen would make to his Leinster XV. He said there would be three, which there were.

However, while he was spot on in suggesting that the fit-again Hugo Keenan would take over at full-back from Ciaran Frawley and that the chopper Will Connors would supplant Josh van der Flier as the starting flanker, he was blindsided by the outcome at lock.

James Ryan played the full 80 for Leinster last weekend in his first match since a training ground bicep injury with Ireland in early March. Having skippered the club in last year’s final, the expectation was that he would come in to start in place of Ross Molony.

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That switch hasn’t happened. Instead, Jason Jenkins has been given the No4 jersey with Ryan held in reserve even though Champions Cup starts haven’t been frequent for the South African international.

At Munster, he was a sub in all four 2021/22 appearances and he also subbed in four of his five runs last term after his switch to Leinster.

The Jacques Nienaber influence since his late November arrival at Leinster, though, has seen an improvement in his fellow countryman’s fortunes.

Having started last month’s quarter-final win over La Rochelle, he has now been recalled to the XV to make a fourth start in seven Champions Cup games this season. It’s a gamble but one Leinster have willingly taken.

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The Brennan factor
Trevor Brennan famously had the last laugh at Matt Williams’ Leinster in the early noughties, falling down the pecking order at the Irish province and going on to win the Heineken Cup with Toulouse at the first attempt.

All the chat that 2002/23 season was about the final being staged at Lansdowne Road, providing Leinster – and Munster – every incentive to work their way through to a home final.

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

There was no all-Irish decider though as Toulouse, with the firebrand Brennan lighting up their sense of mischief, picked off Munster in the semi-finals in France the day before Perpignan came to Dublin to ambush Williams’ running-on-quicksand Leinster.

Brennan revelled in the resulting all-French final, even jumping into a police car with the trophy to get to the airport after a celebration at Kiely’s, the Donnybrook pub that was the premier watering hole at the time for Leinster fans.

Twenty-one years on from that memorable escapade, Brennan’s son Joshua will now look to play spoilsport having been named on the Toulouse bench for this Saturday’s latest final.

The forward is the second cab off the rank of a family that stayed on in the Toulouse area after dad’s playing career finished.

The 25-year-old Daniel is currently propping for Brive in Pro D2 having started at the Toulouse academy before a switch to Montpellier.

Meanwhile, Joshua, who is three years younger, has made the grade at his father’s old club and is now poised for his 21st appearance of this season having been chosen in the No20 jersey ahead of Mathis Castro-Ferreira, the back-rower who subbed the last day against Harlequins.

Brennan has represented France U20s and his inclusion versus Leinster has him poised to play against his second Irish province in the space of four months as he was a used sub in the January win over Ulster in Belfast.

With Toulouse opting for a five/three forwards/backs split on their bench compared to Leinster’s six/two divide, Brennan’s positional flexibility could be important. Five of his 11 Top 14 starts this term have been at lock, with six more coming at openside.

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Six/two versus five/three divide
The difference in the respective bench formats is intriguing. Having gone with a six/two split to dethrone La Rochelle in the quarter-final, Leinster reverted to five/three for their semi-final with Northampton but they have now gone back to a six/two divide for the final in contrast to Toulouse’s five/three selection.

Having an additional forward was never a Leinster tactic in the Cullen/Stuart Lancaster era – which produced a title in 2018 – but Cullen has had his head turned by Nienaber and his famed South African ‘bomb squad’ strategy from the Rugby World Cup.

Ryan, Jack Conan, and van der Flier are quite the combination to bring into the final fray off the bench separate from their three front row reserves.

The signal is clear – the now more physically-minded Leinster are looking to outmuscle opposition and defend better compared to previous finals when attacking creativity was at the core of their game plan.

Look at how they brilliantly blitzed La Rochelle in last year’s opening quarter and how they also led from the front for most of the 2022 decider, sidestepping collisions rather than willingly embracing them before getting pipped by late, late scores.

There is an argument that Leinster’s quality of passing and attacking lines of running aren’t as polished this season with so much energy being expended on learning the mechanics of the Nienaber blitz defence.

The key against Toulouse is whether they can now turn this defence into enough of an attacking weapon to make the critical winning difference on the scoreboard. Going six/two on their bench is a bold tactic aimed at making that happen.

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M
Mzilikazi 2 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

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S
Shaylen 5 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

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