Toulouse ‘our biggest test in Europe’, says Leinster's Jack Conan

Jack Conan has set the bar high for this weekend’s crunch clash with Toulouse, labelling it a tougher assignment than any they faced last season when overcoming all-comers on the way to a fourth European title.

That’s quite the claim.

Among the sides fended off last time around were reigning English champions Exeter Chiefs, a Scarlets side that had claimed PRO12 honours the year before, a Montpellier team that had finished runners-up in the Top 14 and Saracens, who were back-to-back European holders.

It was a gruelling campaign and one they negotiated to perfection, winning all nine games en route to the ultimate honour in the continental club game, but it was Toulouse who ended their long unbeaten run when the sides met in the second round back in October.

“It is our biggest test in Europe to date,” said Conan. “Even last year as well. It’s great we have them at home and we are excited. Big players rise to these big occasions. People are excited about the week ahead and what needs to be done.”

The Leinster back row spoke of a tension that has gripped the club this week. Players and coaches have been quick to talk up Toulouse, to laud the club’s culture and history. It is a message directed at their own ears as much as anyone else’s.

Conan joins the queue of Leinster employees to try his hand at killing Toulouse with kindness this week. It’s not just been scattergun plaudits for the French outfit as a whole either. Individual opponents are concentrating the mind right now too.

In Conan’s case, that is one Jerome Kaino.

Suspended for the earlier meeting of these sides, the Kiwi legend is a two-time World Cup winner and one of the undisputed greats of the modern game: exactly the type of challenge that an ambitious Conan is relishing.

“Absolutely, he’s an incredible athlete. I mean, he’s 35 now at this stage and it’s great for him to be still competing at the top level of rugby at that age. I’m 26 — if I got to that age it would be a miracle. So it’s going to be a massive test.

“I’m looking forward to going up against him. He has shown quality over so many years, whether it is at six or eight. He’s a physical presence across the park, either on the ball or defensively. It just adds to their strength and quality in the back row.”

Kaino is typical of the player Leinster’s senior coach Stuart Lancaster had in mind earlier this week when highlighting the threat presented by a Toulouse pack that can pound and ground with the best of them or razzle-dazzle like their backs.

If that suggests a Leinster approach that will be more considered and conservative than the one which cost them so dearly last October in France, then Conan is mindful that the province still has to be true to themselves as well.

“It’s tough to get the balance. Obviously, we can’t be within ourselves and not go out and play the Leinster brand which has brought us to where we are now, the defending champions.

“We’ll look to play on top of them but we just need to be sure that we’re accurate and make sure we’re not forcing things, to take our time and build phases, to work them hard. They’ve got a physical pack, so we’re going to try to really up the tempo and make sure we’re making them work as hard as we can and giving them a lot of different phases and shapes in attack to defend to put them under a lot of pressure.

“We’ll be playing high tempo and making smart decisions, whether to throw the offload or kick and put the ball through and put them back under pressure.

“It’s going to be a big challenge but we need to find the balance between looking after the ball and making sure we’re playing enough to put them under pressure.”

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