Leinster v Toulouse: Paul Gustard reveals the battlegrounds that will decide the Champions Cup final including the Jack Willis factor

James While
Paul Gustard previews the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse.

Paul Gustard previews the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse.

As the Investec Champions Cup final approaches, Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with Stade Francais forwards coach Paul Gustard to examine the four key battlegrounds of this weekend’s encounter.

Leinster defence v Toulouse attack

The remodelling of Leinster‘s defence under Jacques Nienaber is very specific, they are tight and they rush hard. They look to challenge harder at the breakdown, putting numbers in and their tackle fight is incredible, often pushing the letter of the laws as far as you might imagine. However, it is a big risk versus reward and they have been conceding more tries and losing more games than we expect from the calibre of players at Leinster. As a comparator, Glasgow and Munster have been significantly better this season with their defence, Gustard raised.

As we see with Felix Jones at England – the spacing principles of Nienaber can create opportunity for attack around the narrow corner and there are no teams better than Toulouse in identifying, communicating and attacking space.

They have intelligent footballers and the axis of Dupont/Ntamack/Ahki/Ramos is as potent as any in world rugby at club level. Leinster, like England, tend to leave the backfield bare and have only one player covering and use the extra numbers in the front line with tighter spacing to create more pressure through a bigger rush.

Toulouse have the acumen to exploit space with their attacking game which is as good as any on the planet. They score from all aspects of play and possession and tactically are astute in specific plans for their opponent. They can win the gainline with their power game and multiple carrying threats but it is their movement and offloading in attack that is the most threatening to Leinster. Their speed of ruck is astonishing and with Antoine Dupont a major threat around the fringes holding that rush defence, it will be interesting to see with the tightness of Leinster’s defence how Toulouse can exploit lateral space with their movement.

Spookily, Toulouse’s scoring profile is almost identical in every quarter, they are relentless from start to finish and have scored 95 tries so far this season in the domestic competition which is 20 more than the next best. Leinster have to be ready for the relentlessness of Toulouse and start fast and finish strong.

Willis factor

There are few players who have the ability over the ball than Jack Willis. Looking leaner and fitter this season, fitting into the Toulouse DNA, he has been in imperious form on both sides of the ball, but it his menacing presence around the contact zone that will be a cause for concern for Leinster. They have other jacklers like the two wonderful hookers in Peato Mauvaka and Julien Marchand and of course, the relentless Francois Cros, but it is the Englishman that is the jewel in the crown in terms of poaching. He has a wonderful appreciation of opportunity and gets himself into an incredible position over the ball and once locked on is nigh on impossible to shift.

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His ability in this area will be critical in terms of slowing down Leinster who have lightning-fast rucks themselves and once they get the machine flowing they are a difficult side to handle. Jamison Gibson-Park like Dupont is an excellent player and is most likely the Lions nine incumbent. If he has quick ball he has, like most Kiwis, an incredible feel for space and recognising momentum. Willis and co. need to be the kryptonite to Leinster’s super-fast ball.

Leinster attack

As good as they have been over the last decade in all aspects of play, it is their attack that is the hallmark of this wonderful rugby province. Their attack is the same as most teams adopting a 1-3-3-1 structure with their forwards. However it is the tightness of their work, the late change of running lines, often with a number of dummy lines, and the short passes that create havoc in most defences.

You are forced to narrow up to deal with their pods and they play out the back and move the ball laterally; if you choose to stay wider to deal with their vertical movement then Joe McCarthy, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and co. will cut through you like a knife through butter without the physical challenge of numbers down the middle. Toulouse don’t have as an aggressive defence as some teams but they hold space incredibly well and will be needing to be selective in their breakdown contest as keeping numbers on feet will be crucial to maintain integrity.

Mental

The two teams are the most successful in the history of the competition, with five wins and four respectively. Toulouse were winners as recently as 2021 and have been brewing nicely this season on a title that has eluded them for the last two years. Despite the performances of Leinster in recent times they have been a losing finalist three times in the last five years, with their last victory in 2018 with a narrow win in Spain over Racing 92.

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Sport is a peculiar thing at times and if Toulouse get off to a flier then doubts, fears can creep in. There are not many players from that winning side in 2018, well certainly not starters, and the recent team have yet to see it over the line despite their domestic success and continuing excellence.

There is no doubt that technically, physically, tactically and emotionally there is very little to separate these two incredible teams and organisations. So it will be the strength of mind, the fortitude of grit and getting the job done. It is important to stay true to process and block out the inner chimp, stay true to their DNA and create their own luck through 80 minutes of performance.

Who will win? It’s impossible to say – my heart says Toulouse and my head says Leinster – and it’s very much down to which of the back-rows and scrum-halves get dominance. Whichever way you slice it, there’s no doubt these are the best two sides in Europe and it will be fascinating to watch the match unfold.

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