Le­in­ster face huge test of their squad depth

Cham­pi­ons’ miss­ing big guns tilts the bal­ance to­wards con­fi­dent Toulouse

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - John O’Sul­li­van

To­day Le­in­ster v Toulouse RDS, 1.0pm Vir­gin Me­dia, Ch 4, BT Sport If ad­ver­sity re­veals char­ac­ter then Le­in­ster’s will be rig­or­ously scru­ti­nised given the home side’s in­jury pro­file against ar­guably the form team in Europe, al­beit that it hasn’t dulled the sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion one iota.

That’s a le­git­i­mate billing for two clubs who have won the Heineken Cham­pi­ons Cup on four oc­ca­sions each and in terms of rugby phi­los­o­phy would be sim­i­lar in out­look.

Shorn of World Player of the Year, out­half and cap­tain, Jonathan Sex­ton (knee ten­don), full­back Rob Kear­ney (quad), Devin Toner (an­kle), Dan Leavy (calf) and with­out the sus­pended James Lowe, it’s a colos­sal stress test in terms of squad depth.

Rob­bie Hen­shaw (ham­string) came close to be­ing avail­able for se­lec­tion while a brief coun­ter­point to the plethora of in­jury is­sues was the news that Sean O’Brien will re­turn to train­ing next week.

Le­in­ster head coach Leo Cullen was asked about Sex­ton’s fit­ness with an eye to the Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship opener against Eng­land next month. “Johnny is mak­ing good progress. He should be okay by then,” he said

It’s not ex­actly un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for Le­in­ster in terms of the body count as they went into last sea­son’s home pool match against Mont­pel­lier with­out Sex­ton, O’Brien, Rob Kear­ney, Garry Rin­grose, Scott Fardy and lost Isa Nacewa in the first half – yet still won.

Bet­ter team

Toulouse though are a bet­ter team though than their French com­pa­tri­ots, one chock-full of con­fi­dence as be­fits a side that have won 11 and drawn one of their last 12 matches in all com­pe­ti­tions.

Jor­dan Lar­mour played full­back in Toulouse, Adam Byrne’s form has been ex­cel­lent, Dave Kear­ney gets his chance after an un­for­tu­nate run with in­jury, Rin­grose and Rory O’Lough­lin played to­gether against Bath, while Ross Byrne’s port­fo­lio of big matches in­cludes a cou­ple of Ir­ish caps late last year.

Byrne played home and away against Mont­pel­lier last sea­son, came on after two min­utes against the Ex­eter Chiefs in the Aviva Sta­dium and mar­shalled the team ca­pa­bly in a brace of matches against Mun­ster.

Cullen said: “Ross has a ton of ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s just an­other step in his pro­gres­sion. He leads the team well; he’s a very clear un­der­stand­ing of what’s ex­pected and how we want to play the game. So, no is­sues with Ross, he’s been fantastic.

“I’m not some­one who is wor­ried about what I don’t have. We’ve got a good group, there’s a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence there if you look at the 1-15; they’re all in­ter­na­tion­als. There are 20 of the 23 that have come through the Le­in­ster academy sys­tem. Guys are ma­tur­ing all the time. We’ve full con­fi­dence in the guys who are go­ing to rep­re­sent the group.”

Devin Toner’s ab­sence will shine a light on the li­ne­out, an area where Le­in­ster have been sus­cep­ti­ble to the odd wob­ble at cru­cial times in re­cent matches. Dis­ci­pline, par­tic­u­larly in the tackle, is also go­ing to be a key is­sue for the home side. The best way to negate Toulouse’s stel­lar back­line is to starve them of pos­ses­sion.

Daz­zling foot­work

The daz­zling foot­work of play­ers like Toulouse wing Ch­es­lin Kolbe and cen­tres Sofi­ane Guitoune and Ro­main Nta­mack will carry a yel­low peril for any flail­ing arms. The French side con­tains five changes and a cou­ple of po­si­tional switches from the one that squeezed past Le­in­ster 28-27 in Toulouse.

It’s stronger based on the reshuf­fle with Thomas Ramos and the out­stand­ing An­toine Dupont link­ing up at half­back, Maxime Medard re­lo­cat­ing to full­back and Yoann Huget start­ing on the wing. Richie Arnold, twin brother of Wal­laby in­ter­na­tional Rory, Fran­cois Cros and for­mer All Black Jerome Kaino, in as­crib­ing virtues will add bulk, ath­leti­cism and steel.

It’s a big Toulouse pack and head coach, Ugo Mola has opted for a six-two split in terms of for­wards to backs ra­tio on the bench.

Slow start

Le­in­ster can’t af­ford a slow start – by their own ad­mis­sion Toulouse’s huge early phys­i­cal­ity caught them on the hop a lit­tle in the first game – have to be pre­cise in ev­ery­thing they do, must edge the col­li­sions and the set piece, be vig­i­lant and or­gan­ised in de­fence and avoid turnovers; it’s a long to-do list. But they also have to play to win the match and it’s strik­ing the bal­ance that’s cru­cial.

Rhys Rud­dock, who takes over the Le­in­ster cap­taincy, admitted: “They re­ally got a han­dle of us phys­i­cally from the first minute; they were look­ing to smother us and look­ing to im­pose them­selves on us. So, just to learn from that and make sure that at one o’clock we’re the ones who are win­ning those col­li­sions and put­ting the rest of the team on the front foot.”

Ross has a ton of ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s just an­other step in his pro­gres­sion – Leo Cullen

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.