Toulouse and Leinster poised to enjoy home from home comfort

Chris Hewett
Wednesday 08 January 2014 03:50
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It took the governing classes of European rugby five long years to realise that Heineken Cup semi-finals should be played at neutral venues, and about a quarter of an hour to fly directly in the face of that logic for this season's tournament. This afternoon, Toulouse play Munster at Le Stadium de Toulouse, of all places on God's earth; tomorrow, Leinster take on Perpignan at Lansdowne Road, approximately half a mile from the Dubliners' personal mudheap at Donnybrook. Why not give the home teams a 15-point start, while we're at it? They could do with a leg up.

Toulouse are dangerous enough on any rectangle of grass, let alone the one smack in the middle of their magnificent city, while Leinster have not lost a European game in the Irish capital since Llanelli did for them in the pool stage of the 1998-99 tournament.

They have massive advantages this weekend, advantages no money could buy. Assuming Leinster beat Bernard Goutta's Catalans – and for all their incendiary forward capability, Perpignan are distant outsiders – they will stay at Lansdowne Road for the final, thereby suggesting that it is possible to go all the way through the Heineken knock-out stages without getting out of bed.

Perhaps it is the only way to stop Toulouse winning a second title, seven years after their first. "They are a side with no weaknesses," said Alan Gaffney, the Munster coach, yesterday. "There are not many teams in the world with their firepower." Few of his listeners chose to argue the point. The aristocrats of the Tricolore game will field Poitrenaud, Ntamack, Jauzion, Garbajosa and Clerc in their back division, with Delaigue and Michalak as the halves. It is an extraordinary concentration of free-running talent, a combination to whet the most jaded of appetites. If Munster hold them, they will be worthy finalists.

Given that 12,000 of the capacity 36,000 crowd will be from either Limerick or Cork, and that Munster now win in France almost as regularly as they do at Thomond Park, there is at least the potential for an upset. Gaffney has made precisely no changes to the formation that put the block on Leicester at Welford Road 13 days ago, and if Ronan O'Gara has one of his golden days at outside-half, Toulouse will have to watch themselves. But the Frenchmen have some Irish passion of their own in the shape of Trevor Brennan, who has recovered from the thigh injury he suffered in the quarter-final victory over Northampton, and his presence alongside the outstanding Christian Labit may minimise the visitors' perceived superiority in the back row.

Leinster, meanwhile, have Reggie Corrigan, their captain, back at loose-head prop, and a certain Brian O'Driscoll among their backs. Like Toulouse, they can wreak all sorts of havoc on a small percentage of possession, and the temperature they generate in midfield may well be too hot for the likes of Pascal Giordani and Christophe Manas, the Perpignan centres. The Frenchmen will scrummage, for sure, and with Gregory Le Courvec and Rimas Alvarez Kairelis offering targets at the line-out, they are unlikely to find themselves short of ball. But they are not in vintage shape – they have won only three away games all season, and lost at home to Stade Français last weekend – and may struggle to cope with the occasion.

In England, three players have been added to Clive Woodward's 70-strong national squad, from which he will select his summer tour parties. Two flankers, Pete Anglesea of Sale and Michael Lipman of Bristol, and the Wasps centre Stuart Abbott will attend a training get-together in Surrey on Monday.

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