Toulouse? Almost too tight to call

FORGET the bookmakers’ odds that would have you believe Leinster are set to cruise to victory over Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium today (3.30pm) because this Heineken Cup semi-final is set to be one hell of a scrap.

There are many factors that make Joe Schmidt’s side hot favourites in this compelling match-up of the last two winners of Europe’s most prestigious club competition — not least home advantage — but the Leinster head coach and his captain Leo Cullen have left their players under no illusions as to the size of the task in front of them.

Last season’s 26-16 defeat in Toulouse at the same stage of the competition is still fresh in the memory of those that saw their reign as European champions ended at Stade Ernest Wallon and the dominant performance put in by the four-time champions’ pack that day is certainly a live prospect for Leinster to deal with.

In his three years as Clermont Auvergne backs coach, Schmidt has seen enough of Toulouse’s power not to underestimate the havoc it can cause nor the challenge it poses.

“There are more similarities than differences, to be honest,” Schmidt said when comparing last season’s Toulouse team with the 2011 crop. “Certainly they are the same in that they’ll try to break down your platform.

“They very much deconstruct the opposition lineout and attempt to destroy the opposition scrum.

“On the back of that they will try to physically impose themselves, they have a number of big strong guys who ball-carry very well, the likes of Census Johnston, (Louis) Picamoles, (Patricio) Albacete and William Servat.

“They will have those sort of ball-carriers and then anything that does become a little bit loose, any opportunity they have to very quickly turn defence into attack, particularly from turnover ball, they are very quick to make the most of that.

“And then their offloading game is just a little bit special, they tend to have very good support very close to the ball and look to keep the continuity without taking the ball to ground.”

So dominant were the Toulouse forwards in last year’s semi-final that Leinster prop Cian Healy was hauled out of the action in the first-half.

Schmidt is confident his loosehead is much better player 12 months on.

“I think Cian scrummed really well during the Six Nations and really well for us prior to that in the Heineken Cup.

“He’s going really well and he knows it is going to be a massive challenge for him but, whoever he is up against on Saturday, he’ll be looking to reverse the torrid time that he had last year.”

The Samoan, Census Johnston will, as expected, be at tight-head for Toulouse but what will have surprised Schmidt is the decision by opposite number Guy Noves to keep France captain and back rower Thierry Dusautoir on the bench as he continues his return from a recent injury.

Speaking on Thursday, Schmidt said: “I can’t see them not playing Thierry Dusautoir, he adds that much value for them, but with (Yannick) Nyanga there, it’s almost like with like, he’s just such a good player as well.”

Noves has gone with Nyanga at openside, with Jean Bouilhou captaining Toulouse at No.6 and the ball carrying, offloading talents of Louis Picamoles preferred to Shaun Sowerby at No.8, with the South African joining Dusautoir among the replacements.

The other positional dilemmas for Noves were at inside centre and scrum-half.

The veteran of 18 seasons in charge has chosen Clement Poitrenaud ahead of Yannick Jauzion in midfield and gone with French U20 star Jean-Marc Doussain to solve the injury-plagued No. 9 position rather than Nicolas Bezy, who started the quarter-final with Biarritz in San Sebastian that Toulouse won in extra time.

Leinster, having won six of their last seven outings and boasting a clean bill of health, stick with the side that overcame Leicester Tigers in their home quarter-final earlier this month and Schmidt has been delighted with his squad’s build-up to today’s game.

“I’m certainly happy with where we are, we are in a place where 20 other teams would love to be, and we are one of four.

“Their match against Clermont following this weekend is almost a dead rubber for them so they can afford to rotate their squad and rest up.

“Their run in to the Heineken Cup final if they should they get there is also very manageable and they have been relatively vocal in saying that if they are going to do the double, this would be the year to do it.”

It is Leinster’s job to deny them the European leg of that double and Schmidt’s side has the tools to do it with a hard-nosed and hard-tackling pack and a multi-dimensional backline that has had the moneymen in French club rugby lining up outside the IRFU with chequebooks at the ready.

They like what they have seen and although it won’t be the cakewalk the odds suggest, Leinster have an excellent chance to show the French just why the likes of Jonny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll have decided to stay right where they are.

Picture: Yannick Jauzion takes on David Skrela during the Toulouse captain’s run at Aviva Stadium ahead of their Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Leinster today. Picture: Matt Browne/ Sportsfile

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