Rugby-Toulouse and Leinster face off for European supremacy


  • Rugby
  • Thursday, 23 May 2024

LONDON (Reuters) - In a true clash of the giants, Toulouse and Leinster, the two most successful clubs in European rugby, meet in Saturday's Champions Cup final where fans will have the novel opportunity of seeing a trophy hoisted at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium.

Both will be appearing in the final for the eighth time, as Toulouse seek to extend their record five triumphs, and Leinster aim to reach that tally, though it is the first time the rivals have met in the decisive match.

Both sides are loaded to the gunnels with talent in every department, with Leinster boasting the bulk of the Irish national team and Toulouse not only fielding the biggest names in France, but also spiced with some international flavour.

After his brief diversion to the national Sevens team, where he will return for the Olympics, scrumhalf Antoine Dupont’s presence has been a real boon to Toulouse, the Top 14 champions last year and currently leading this season's standings.

Their irrepressible captain leads the Champions Cup statistics for carries (110) and offloads (20), is second for both metres (534) and line breaks (13), and, remarkably for a scrumhalf, is in joint-third place for turnovers with nine.

Romain Ntamack is back at flyhalf and, such is their squad depth, that they boast three of the Six Nations' first-choice fullbacks. Scot Blair Kinghorn and France's Thomas Ramos are wrestling for the starting shirt, with Italy's brilliant Ange Capuozzo struggling for a look-in.

"When you're lucky enough to have such players at your disposal, naming your starting team is a real puzzle," coach Ugo Mola said.

Toulouse won the European Cup four times and lost in another two finals from 1996-2008 but faced some lean times before returning for their record fifth win in 2021. It will, of course, not be forgotten that they were knocked out in the semi-finals by Leinster, emphatically, in both the following years.

Against Harlequins in this year's semi-final Toulouse were at times virtually unplayable, with forwards and backs able to keep moves alive with offloads from every angle and, scoring an average of 6.6 tries per game in the competition this season, Leinster will have to be at their best to stay in the game.

Despite their entire focus being always on this competition, the Irish province have struggled to get over the line in recent years, winning the continent's premier trophy only once in the last 12 years.

Their last victory came in 2018 and they lost the last two finals, both to La Rochelle, as well as to Saracens in 2019.

Last year's defeat was a tough one to take as they produced some sublime rugby to roar into first-half leads of 17-0 and 23-7 before going down 27-26.

'FREE-FLOWING RUGBY'

Leinster boast Josh van der Flier in the back row, star hooker Dan Sheehan, prolific wing James Lowe and livewire scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park, who drives his team's attack with relentless pace.

Flyhalf Ross Byrne has almost seamlessly stepped up to fill the unfillable boots of Johnny Sexton and says his team are braced for a particular challenge.

"The way Toulouse play the game is very unique in terms of free-flowing rugby, the individuals they have and they can all run and off-load," he said.

It will need all the defensive nous of South Africa's World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber, who arrived in September, to keep the lid on.

"We've made some pretty drastic changes from last year, in particular with regards to how we defend," head coach Leo Cullen said this week.

"Delivering that kind of defensive performance on a big day against a really good attacking team, that is probably number one on the agenda this week.

"Our game is completely different to what it would have been this time last year. It's two good teams, two strong traditions in the competition. Hopefully it'll be a great contest."

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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