Leinster v Toulouse: Bernard Jackman’s five battles to unlock an Irish win, including ‘invaluable’ Springbok experience

James While
Bernard Jackman gives his analytical preview of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse.

Bernard Jackman gives his analytical preview of the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse.

After the expert analysis of Stade Francais’ Paul Gustard from a French perspective earlier this week, former Leinster and Ireland hooker, and Planet Rugby regular Bernard Jackman joins James While as he gives an Irish overview, examining the five keys for Leinster to unlock a famous victory in the Investec Champions Cup on Saturday.

Controlling the Emotions

Outwardly, Leinster will tell you they’re in a great place in terms of confidence and emotion and I believe there is some truth in that, but given what’s happened in the last two finals, and also with Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, of course there’s going to be demons at the back of their mind, and they need to conquer that.

However, I know from speaking to some of the lads that the experiences and belief Jacques Nienaber brings from his ability to get his teams over the line in the tightest matches is something that’s given them fresh belief.

Nienaber did it three times on the bounce at the World Cup last year and a couple of times in 2019 too and when you have a coach with reference points like that then that confidence and that mechanism to capture the win in the last throws is absolutely invaluable. Sure, some might say that it’s ‘by proxy’ but he brings this to the players as an integral part of the team, a voice that can educate, motivate and calm the nerves.

As a simple example, the players will also learn from their own downfalls; a case in point is Ross Byrne, who was on in the last throes of the 2023 yet had no plan to drop a goal for the win. You can bet Nienaber will have a plan for that eventuality and Byrne will realise that he needs to change things up if he faces that scenario again.

It’s about personal experiences and planning to overcome those emotions and the detail of the coaches and players will ensure that this year they are better prepared for that last gasp eventuality.

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Antoine Dupont Factor

Rather like the nerves thing, you can play this one down and pretend he’s just another player or you simply acknowledge that he’s an all-time great of the game and can change things in the blink of an eye. To admit the latter honestly makes it possible to create a coping strategy and at the heart of that plan is the aim of chaotic disruption of his work at the base.

He’s hard enough from structured play but from loose or transition ball, he is absolute dynamite and I’ve lost count of the times that he sparks a turnover move with interplay down the flanks with his ten and backrowers, only for Thomas Ramos or Blair Kinghorn to turn up as the second ten running a line down the middle for the inside ball. It’s a hallmark of his game and it’s a play Toulouse pull off time and time again.

If you go back to Munster and the drawn quarter-final in 2022, they did exactly this where they used ‘plus one’ tacklers to hit him – one man in and another following almost prelatched to create disruptive power. On that day Conor Murray, a huge nine, put incredible physical pressure on Dupont at the base of the scrum and ruck, giving him no time to breathe and acting right on the edge of legality.

Jamison Gibson-Park is also a world-class nine and he’s a canny operator, brought up on the windy coastal rugby of Taranaki where abrasion is a pre-requisite. I’ve seen him dismantle a few Test scrum halves – notably Jack van Poortvliet against England a couple of years ago- and his desire, together with his brilliant scramble defence, will be key in nullifying Dupont.

And, while Leinster will play for Antoine, so Toulouse will know precisely what Gibson-Park is capable of – and conversely, he is as big a threat for them as Dupont is to Leinster – so expect a battle royale of halfbacks as the best pair in the business go up against each other.

Hot Starts

Now, in both 2022 and 2023, Leinster have started off like a firecracker. But a reoccurring theme for them is how they maintain that momentum from 50 minutes onwards, something that as you can see from the graph is a bit of an issue.

Leinster's scoring in Champions Cup knockouts.

It happened again a couple of times this season too – notably against Saints in the semi-final and it’s almost like opponents take time to adjust to the pace and variety of Leinster’s attack, but once there, Leinster struggle to open them up further.

So, for the Irish lads this isn’t about that hot start that coaches value so highly; that’s a given with this team, and we know they’ll come firing out of the blocks. It’s more about how they stay the course for the duration and close the game off at the end, something Toulouse are brilliant at.

You only have to look at last season’s TOP 14 final when Roman Ntamack had a shocker of a game for 79 minutes – really atrocious- but somehow conjured the self-belief to go the length of the pitch and score a worldie to win the game, defining the phrase matchwinner.

Nobody questions Leinster’s ability to start a game but if they want to change this result around it’s all about finishing as hot as they started. Nothing else will do.

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Breakdown Battle

Paul Gustard was very wise when he described the Toulouse approach and singled out Jack Willis, Peato Mauvaka and Julien Marchand as massive jackaling threats. However, Leinster don’t approach the breakdown in the same way; Toulouse are slightly more passive and prepared to absorb the collision and then you’ll see the brilliant Francois Cros and others creating gaps from the first contact for Willis and the hookers to steal. It’s co-ordinated and it’s intentional – and Toulouse have the tools and the intellect to be able to play like this.

Leinster don’t quite have the jackal ability of the Rouge et Noirs. But what they have is relentless physicality and a real work-rate to clear out, drive over and disrupt, a different but highly effective approach, especially given the need to neuter Antoine Dupont’s fastball. You can bet your life they’ll throw everything in and look for that destabilising effort that defines the likes of Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier and others.

Very lastly, Toulouse do have an ace in Emmanuel Meafou. He’s developed massively over the last two years and his offloading into contact is something that could cause Leinster a lot of headaches. His tonnage means throwing in extra men if he wins the collision and that might just open up holes for others to exploit.

However, if Leinster can contain Meafou and do that disconnection/disruption piece on Dupont then, this match is theirs to lose, but it’ll be tight as you like.

Like Gussy, I can’t call this one, but I do believe Leinster are even better prepared this season, and I cannot wait for a match that promises to be an absolute thriller.

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