By Phil Rice
It is not often you report that Leinster have failed to win their last two matches but in the build up to their biggest game of the season to date this Sunday against Toulouse, head coach Leo Cullen has resorted to his shadow team for recent Pro14 games, having already qualified for a home semi-final in the play-offs.
Last weekend’s game against Glasgow allowed Cullen the opportunity to give fitness tests to his long-term casualties Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw. Both came through the confrontational match with no ill effects.
It was so reassuring to have such a line-out colossus as Toner back in action, as he comfortably won all his throws and disrupted the opposition where possible.
Joe Schmidt must have looked on with regret that the 6ft 10in Lansdowne man was unavailable during the Six Nations, when Ireland’s first phase possession was unreliable to say the least.
Robbie Henshaw also looked sharp and his partnership with Garry Ringrose this week will be crucial, as Leinster attempt to break down the Toulouse midfield.
Recent events have demonstrated that while the strength in depth in Irish rugby is much improved during the past few years, there is still a significant difference in quality between first-choice players and their substitutes.
Johnny Sexton is also available for selection for this Sunday’s game – he was missed in the narrow quarter-final victory over Ulster.
He would be the first to admit that his Six Nations form was well below his own high standards and he will be anxious to allay fears that his best days are behind him, when he plays his first game for Leinster in 2019.
With Toner restored to the team it may well be that Scott Fardy becomes the unlucky overseas player to miss out on selection.
Winger James Lowe is such a potential match-winner that he is almost certain to start and Cullen is likely to select Jamison Gibson-Park on the bench as back up for Luke McGrath at scrum-half.
Toulouse gained a one-point victory over Leinster in the first pool game last October, but were heavily beaten at the RDS in January.
Since then they have beaten all-comers in the Top14 in France and their tenacious victory with 14 men away to Racing in the quarter-final, demonstrates their determination to succeed in the Champions Cup this season.
The French side have probably got the most dangerous set of backs in European rugby. Scrum-half Antoine Dupont has been the find of the season in French rugby.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 17, 2019
He was man of the match against Racing and his crisp distribution and sniping breaks make him a real threat to Leinster’s defence.
With Romain Ntamack as his half-back partner and Cheslin Kolbe, Yoann Huget and Maxine Medard in the back division, there is no shortage of attacking power.
Rob Kearney is likely to be restored to full-back, after his two-try display last weekend and his defensive expertise will be tested to the full. Henshaw’s return will be vital to close down the midfield threat of the French backs.
One concern for Cullen will be the fitness of Tadhg Furlong who left the field clutching his left knee, at the weekend.
Leinster will expect to hold the upper hand in the forwards this week but Furlong would be a massive loss if he was unavailable.
Home advantage should prove decisive for Leinster but we all know how dangerous Toulouse’s backs can be and starving them of possession will be top of Cullen’s agenda.
Munster face an even more daunting task in the other semi-final against Cup favourites Saracens in Coventry, this Saturday.
Munster captain @PeterOM6 is set to make his 50th Champions Cup appearance in Saturday’s semi-final against English champions Saracens!
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 17, 2019
The English giants destroyed Glasgow in the quarter-finals and with almost all of their first-choice players available, they pose a monumental task for Johann van Graan’s men.
Of course, Munster have made a habit of upsetting the odds in Europe over the years, but this test will call for all of their fighting spirit and resolute defence if they are to succeed. If Saracens are given any room to attack they are almost irresistible.
Their pack is littered with top international players and even without the injured Mako Vunipola at loose-head, Munster will have their hands full coping with their threat up front.
Unfortunately, Munster will be without the outstanding Joey Carbery at fly half, but Tyler Bleyandaal has been showing excellent form recently and with Rory Scannell and Chris Farrell in the centre and Keith Earls and Andrew Conway on the wings, Munster are well capable of threatening themselves.
The main strength Saracens possess is in their pack, and in Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and George Kruis they have three of the best forwards in the modern game.
Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander will have to be at their belligerent best to counter the threat posed by the opposition pack.
Ulsterman Mark McCall has done an excellent job in coaching Saracens to become one of the best teams in Europe and despite the hoards of vociferous Munster supporters that will descend on the English Midlands, it is hard to see a Munster victory, but we have said that before and been proved wrong.
Last weekend saw Connacht and Ulster for qualify for the Pro14 play-offs, and in doing so next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
With four of the six play-off places going to the Irish provinces, it says much for the strength of Irish rugby, despite the disappointing showing in the Six Nations.