As someone who grew up in football-mad south Dublin in the 50’s and 60’s, the beautiful game was our passion and Real Madrid the flag bearer. They still are. The Spanish Galacticos have stood the test of time. Even my own beloved Leeds in their absolute pomp changed the club’s official garb to all white under Don Revie in honor of the Champion Club that everyone else in Europe and beyond sought to emulate.
ix overall victories and eight appearances in finals between 1956 and 1966 put her on a pedestal for all time. Four decades later, much like Madrid in football, Toulouse had come out of the blocks fastest in rugby. Their initial winning streak was nowhere near as strong as that of the Spanish football giants, but with five overall wins and seven European Cup finals appearances in 27 years, they are the aristocratic rugby equivalent. And that shouldn’t detract from Leinster’s performances in the parallel period.
On the contrary, unlike Toulon and Saracens, Leinster and Toulouse embody everything decent and honest about the game, with Leicester, Munster and Wasps fairly close behind.
And having just emotionally recovered from last weekend’s dramatic penalty shoot-out between Munster and Toulouse, here we are again with the absolute elite, on form and in terms of finals and trophies won, going head-to-head. Another delicious spectacle is guaranteed to look on.
If any rugby supporters here haven’t gotten the Stardust element from Stade Toulouse before, they now have with three consecutive knockout rounds against three of the Irish provinces. This is a class rugby act that sums up almost everything that is good about the game and we in Dublin and Belfast have had the privilege of witnessing the crème de la crème up close and personal.
Not that Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, or anyone in Leinster’s management would believe the propaganda, but this nonsense about the French not traveling well has long been dispelled for the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that it is. Should Ugo Mola lead the club to the last 16 in the 14th semi-final, he would have eliminated Ulster, Munster and Leinster in consecutive rounds on Irish soil.
To this end, they arrived a day earlier than usual to improve preparations. And although both today’s fighters endured demanding matches away from home just seven days ago, there is no doubt that Munster have demanded much more from Touolouse at the Aviva than Leicester’s Tigers of Leinster at Welford Road. Mentally, physically and emotionally, Munster made the reigning champions look as deeply as they could for a way out, but ultimately, as is usual with great champions in any sport, they found that way.
There is no guarantee that the winner of this year’s tournament will emerge from today’s Dublin 4 showdown, but at this point the two standout teams in the history of this great competition are certainly both at their best.
Lansdowne Road is now familiar territory for Toulouse. So does the alien element, where the only change after fully encountering the sea of red will be a color change from red to blue. The wide pitch will suit both, given the balance shared in positions one through 15 and beyond. The champions again include nine of the French team’s Grand Slam winners for tonight’s big match; six forward and three backward. Of course, Leinster can improve that with a top-heavy squad with established internationals.
Players often talk about the difference in intensity between domestic and international fare, but in games like today, with practically the same staff, there is no difference. Both teams in good form can play it any which way and I expect that will be the case today.
In almost every line of both teams there are individual duels to admire. From Cyril Baille against Tadhg Furlong, Julien Marchand or Peato Mauvaka against Rónan Kelleher or Dan Sheehan in the front row, to Rory Arnold fighting James Ryan, to arguably the two classiest back row units outside of Test rugby. Read all three of Rynhardt Elstadt, Thibaud Flament, Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch against Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan.
Assuming both packs deliver, the key area is then half back. Prepare for an engrossing battle of wits as Jamison Gibson Park – currently the best rugby player of his career – meets the best at that position in the northern hemisphere, while the old dog, still delivering fascinating tactical tricks, at ten o’clock against the apparent heir takes on this role. Gibson Park and Johnny Sexton versus Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack represent an intellectual tactical battle for the ages – and one that will likely decide which team comes out on top.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/champions-cup/this-clash-of-european-titans-will-come-down-to-battle-of-half-backs-41648598.html This clash of European titans will result in a clash of half-backs