‘Unstructured’ Toulouse perplexing Stuart Lancaster

Leinster have been keen to get something across this week.

The point being pushed is that the Toulouse team they face this weekend is a markedly superior outfit to the Toulouse side that had their number on the continent in October.

It’s a fair shout given the Top 14 side is 12 games unbeaten, in a run stretching back to late September, tops Pool One of the Heineken Champions Cup and carries a renewed sense of confidence and momentum to the RDS for what is round five’s pre-eminent meeting.

The more pertinent question is whether the same can be said for Leinster.

Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and Robbie Henshaw are all at varying levels of fitness and may or may not play - and who knows if others are rated so-so — while James Lowe is a confirmed absentee as he serves his suspension from the Munster game.

But let’s look deeper.

Leinster were being hailed as club rugby’s answer to the All Blacks prior to that loss at Stade Ernest-Wallon three months back but, ignore the routine cakewalks banked against lightweight opposition this season, and their form has been iffy.

Munster could have beaten them in the Aviva Stadium in October and Connacht certainly should have last month. The loss away to Toulouse was followed by a fortunate win in the Rec against Bath and they were undone in Thomond Park over Christmas.

All of which is cause for pause rather than a definitive rap sheet and Stuart Lancaster doesn’t profess to have landed on any one or two unifying threads to explain the difficulties the province has had in some of the bigger games played of late.

If there is a tie that binds then it seems to be an inability to manage some of these games in the manner we have come to expect. There is certainly a suggestion from Leinster that they need to pay more heed to that at the RDS on Saturday. “Of all the tries (Toulouse) have scored, over half of them are off counter-attack, which is incredible,” said Lancaster. “So if you look at the top tries of the season, I reckon Toulouse would have the top five at the moment, in terms of their running and ability to break and play unstructured rugby.

“We pride ourselves in our ability to play unstructured rugby but they are at a different level. They are outstanding. So we need to be controlled and composed but also not be afraid to fire some shots of our own as well. It should be a fantastic game.”

It really should.

These two sides sit atop the European Cup roll of honour with four titles each. One of them is the current holder and the other a powerhouse back on the main boulevard after a year slumming it in the side street that is the Challenge Cup.

It was Leo Cullen who first made the observation that Toulouse have kicked on from the earlier meeting and Lancaster put some meat on the bones of that argument yesterday by name-checking a litany of players who require attention.

Jerome Kaino should start having missed his side’s 28-27 against the province due to suspension and he will join a pack which will likely boast Joe Tekori and Charlie Faumuina and one with an ability to offload as well as steamroll.

The threat out the back is just as layered.

Antoine Dupont has emerged as a class operator at nine for club and country and South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is among a necklace of glittering jewels spread across a back line that did Leinster serious damage once already this season.

“I’ve seen him run around people, dodge around people and then I saw him score another try where he actually ran through the ten, just ran over him,” said Lancaster. “You think he doesn’t look huge but he ran through the middle of a ruck the other day. Yeah he’s got incredible feet.

“You’d pay money to see Jordan Larmour and Kolbe on the same field, wouldn’t you?”

Over 18,000 people have. Ages ago. This one has long been sold out. It could, in fact, have gone a long way to filling out the 51,000-plus capacity Aviva Stadium and yet the stakes at this point of the season are not quite as high as used to be.

Leinster could actually lose this and still qualify for the last eight with some degree of comfort.

“I’m not even thinking about that but if you look at the track record of previous campaigns then we came top last year with six wins out of six. The team that came second out of eight won four and lost two and Saracens, who qualified in eight position, won three, drew one and lost two.

“Saracens qualified last year with 18 points. We’re on 15 now and Toulouse are on 17 but that is a dangerous mindset to think that it’s okay if you lose. It isn’t because if you win you have control but it is still not the end point because you’ve still got to go to Wasps and win away from home.”

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