Toulouse face a ‘mountainous’ challenge against the premier club side in Europe when they face Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, according to double World Cup-winning All Black Jerome Kaino.
The omens are good for the winners of tomorrow’s last-four match.
In 11 previous meetings in Europe, Leinster and Toulouse have played each other twice before at this stage of the competition — with each side winning once, then going on to lift the title.
Overall, Toulouse have the edge, with six wins to Leinster’s five — but Leo Cullen’s side will start this chapter as strong favourites according to Kaino.
“The Leinster side, with their form and history, speaks for itself. They are the champions and they’re proven final performers so it’s a huge mountain for us,” he said of the Aviva Stadium clash.
We can take comfort from the fact we’re one-all against them in the competition this year but they’re a top-quality side.
Although the French side head into the game as underdogs, he said the match is one to be relished.
“Instead of looking at it as a big unconquerable mountain, we have to see it as an opportunity. The youngsters on the team are getting excited. We’re pleased to have a semi-final berth — it’s exciting.”
After their dramatic quarter-final against Racing 92, a game Toulouse won despite playing for an hour with 14 players after Zack Holmes was red-carded for a high tackle on Juan Imhoff, Kaino had told reporters the
rouge-et-noir ”would have to throw the kitchen sink” at Leinster to have a chance of reaching next month’s final in Newcastle.
“That’s how you play semi-finals,” he explained later in the early April sunshine following a training session at Stade Ernest Wallon. “That’s your final. You have to win the right to play one more week. For us, in terms of preparation and the way we play and think, especially in that 80 minutes, all our energy will go towards winning.
“If you look at that Leinster side, it’s pretty much — bar a few players — the Ireland side. I know Joe Schmidt and how he’s built the systems in Ireland. Leinster won’t leave any stone unturned in their preparations. We’re going to have to be on our game to even have a look.”
Both Leinster and Toulouse are four-time European champions, but the Irish province have won three crowns since the giants of French rugby last lifted the title in 2010 — glory that came five years after Toulouse’s third European success.
In fact, unlike Leinster, the last few years have been fallow ones for Toulouse. The trophy cabinet is not bare, but it is dusty and the silverware on show is just a little tarnished with age. The crown princes of French rugby have not reached a final in any competition since winning the last of their record 19 domestic championship crowns in 2012.
Leinster have added five trophies to their list since Toulouse won their last.
That rich history has weighed heavy on the club in recent seasons. But there are hints that load is being lifted. For the first time since the end of the Guy Noves years, there is a real sense that a new age of glory is dawning for the club.
In the Top 14, Toulouse are eight points clear of second-placed Clermont, and 15 ahead of third-placed Lyon — and are just about assured of an automatic spot in the end-of-season play-off semi-finals.
A European and French double is a distinct possibility, but Kaino refused to get carried away. “That would be a dream run for any club to even consider. We’ve got a sniff in both competitions. It’s not beyond our reach so we’re looking forward to giving both of them a good crack.
We’ve got a lead on the Top 14 but cannot rest on that and for the Champions Cup, it comes down to one game.
Since the Racing quarter-final, Toulouse have faced Toulon and Clermont in the Top 14.
After tomorrow’s semi-final, away trips to play-off chasing Castres Olympique and Bordeaux are included in their final four domestic games of the regular season. “It definitely keeps us on our game in the way we plan and prepare. I don’t know if it is a negative — it is a great thing for us to have quality opponents, but it makes it a lot tougher for us.”
Such challenges eventually take their toll. An impressive record came to an end when the club lost a first Top 14 match in 14 outings, an unbeaten streak — including 13 victories — dating back to September 29. The only blip on their record in all competitions was, ironically, against Leinster at the RDS in January.
That domestic defeat to came six days after the Champions Cup quarter-final. A leg-weary Toulouse were well beaten by a much hungrier Toulon at a rain-soaked Orange Velodrome in Marseille. Kaino, who along with Antoine Dupont and Cheslin Kolbe, was rested for that match, said:
“I thought at the start of the game the energy and aggression that Toulon brought was head and shoulders above ours. They just kept growing and growing as we made mistakes. I think the conditions played a little part in how we played but in terms of attitude, Toulon turned up to play and we didn’t.”
But he insisted it was not the result of quarter-final comedown: “It had nothing to do with a six-day turnaround or fatigue, or anything. Toulon just wanted it more.”
The pressure of Toulousain past was palpable when Kaino pitched up at Ernest Wallon in late August 2018. “My first impression was the history that you see when you walk around, in the halls and clubhouse. There are pictures of the glory days of Toulouse rugby and its amazing to be able to feel it.
“I already knew a lot about Toulouse before I came here. I knew a lot of ex-All Blacks and friends who came through the club and I’ve heard about the history.”
He may have seen it in Toulouse’s history, but the double world champion understands better than most other current players at the club how to handle the white-hot pressure of knockout rugby.
This semi-final is a first for Toulouse’s next generation of Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, and Thomas Ramos. A first, too, for coaches Ugo Mola and Regis Sonnes, who had never won a knockout match as coaches before March’s quarter-final victory over Racing.
The Aviva is not a place for away-team first-timers. But Kaino has been here before.
“Hopefully, I can teach the guys a few tips on how to stay relaxed in high-pressure games. The young boys just want to get out there and play — but sometimes the pressure gets too much and they stop expressing themselves. Hopefully, I can show them what to do.”
This is one 36-year-old rugby dog, however, who insisted he was learning more new tricks from his young French team-mates than anything they possibly could from him.
“Being here in France, it’s a lot different to New Zealand with younger players, you’ve seen them through the academies and you can help but here I don’t see them in terms of age. I like learning from the younger players. I’m a crash-bash kind of guy but the players who were in France’s World Championship-winning U20s, like Romain (Ntamack) and Lucas (Tauzin), they play very differently and bring a lot of excitement.”
Excitement has been Toulouse’s stock-in-trade this season. More often than not, they have played thrill-seeking, boy-racer rugby that has been a joy to behold. They have run-in 75 tries in the Top 14 this season so far, and another 19 in Europe.
It was, Kaino said, the plan from the start of the campaign.”I turned up towards the end of preseason. The plan was always to bring back the Toulouse brand of rugby — there was not too much talk of results or where we were going to be in the table. It was all about bringing back the flamboyant, physical Toulouse brand of rugby and I think we’ve come a long way towards doing that.”