With cards stacked in Leinster's favour, if not now then when?

Blues may still lack that 'Rocky Elsom factor' but ultimately Leo Cullen's men look to have the tools to cope with Toulouse's fearsome power
With cards stacked in Leinster's favour, if not now then when?

Fully focused: Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and head coach Leo Cullen during Leinster's captain's run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday.

Leinster’s players and coaches had yet to leave for Leicester when Dan Leavy, forced into retirement by injury just last month, and kitman Jim Bastick climbed into a van packed with the squad’s essentials and made for the ferry across to England last Thursday week.

Leavy was the side’s top carrier and tackler in May of 2018 when they edged past Racing 92 in the Bilbao decider and claimed a fourth European Cup, after which Isa Nacewa and Jordi Murphy were given the honour of lifting the trophy into the Basque sky.

This tradition of shunting departing players front and centre at times of triumph is well ingrained by now and one imagines Leavy, who roared the side onto the Welford Road turf, will be in the vicinity if they stitch that fifth star to their chest this year in Marseille. If.

Leinster are ideally positioned for this semi-final.

The luxury of resting their Ireland contingent for a week post-Six Nations, and again during that fortnight stint when the ‘B’ team travelled to South Africa for two URC games, allowed them brace for the Tigers task. Now they’ve that test under their belt to boot.

Toulouse have had to drag themselves back to Dublin after squeaking past Munster in an energy-sapping quarter-final that went all the way to penalties seven days ago. Another French behemoth would await in the final but, still, if not now for Leinster then when?

“It’s very hard to say, but guys are in good form,” said Leo Cullen when asked if they are better set now than when losing at this stage 12 months ago. “They’re excited, there are bits from that La Rochelle game which really stick in their mind, for a number of our players, for sure.

“Making sure we don’t get into that situation, that’s the learning and the growing and developing. Do you improve? That’s what every team tries to do but the opposition is getting better as well. It’s who increases or improves better over time.” 

Cullen highlighted how a number of younger players have pushed on in the last year, and that’s true, but maybe the more salient point is how players in key positions, like Jamison Gibson-Park and Josh van der Flier, have moved onto another level.

All told, they will put out a side again today with 13 Ireland internationals and with Jimmy O’Brien and Ross Molony surely on the verge of winning similar honours. Another six men with Test experience sit poised to come off the bench.

Go back to that La Rochelle loss and they had no Johnny Sexton, they were missing three Ireland back rows and lost Rhys Ruddock in-game. Gibson-Park now is an upgrade on Luke McGrath then. Same goes for Molony for Devin Toner, and Andrew Porter for Cian Healy. The 2022 James Lowe looks better than the 2021 model, too.

That still leaves a question mark over their ability to at least break even with the might of a Toulouse side whose offering in terms of quality is their equal but whose sheer size Leinster will have to counter with their footwork and smarts.

They simply can’t allow the visitors’ big men to build up steam in the way units like Uini Atonio and Will Skelton did last time, and to such an extent that the game looked a bridge too far long before half-time was reached at Stade Marcel-Deflandre.

Ideally, Leinster would have a Nathan Hines or a Brad Thorn-type figure from deep down south in their ranks. Win the thing outright this time and it will be their first title without that ‘Rocky Elsom’ factor but Cullen is satisfied that they have muscle enough to prosper.

“We have some good players in that front-row, Tadhg (Furlong), Andrew and Rónan (Kelleher). It's a very, very powerful front row that we have. We expect them to put in a big performance and gain dominance in that area.” 

If there is a sense that Leinster have yet to really click across 80 minutes then the same can be said for Toulouse whose wins away to Ulster and Munster are the only two they have claimed on the road in the current calendar year.

Antoine Dupont could be their current state in microcosm in that, while his form might be a shade below his illuminating best since the Six Nations, he retains the ability to tear through an opposing line and turn a game’s momentum in a heartbeat.

Ultimately, though, too many cards seem to be stacked in Leinster’s favour.

A match-fit Ryan Baird would have been nice to have but, that aside, they are in remarkably good shape personnel-wise and they will have north of 40,000 fans roaring them on as they look to take another step closer to Toulouse’s record haul of five titles.

“They’ve been the team that we have always seemed to be chasing in many ways,” said Cullen. “It's no different (this time). They’re still the team we’re chasing because they’re a proud club, great tradition, huge resources and all the rest. It's a great challenge for us.” 

And one they look like mastering. Just.

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