CHAMPIONS CUP: Being back again says a lot about Leinster

rugby24 May 2024 05:00| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Eben Etzebeth © Getty Images

South African eyes will be focused firmly on Friday on the Hollywoodbets Sharks’ quest to join the Investec Champions Cup elite next season but the main event of the weekend happens at the same venue the next day and will provide a benchmark of the level that is required.

While the Sharks rightly see their EPCR Challenge Cup final against the English club Gloucester as a huge game for them, for so much is at stake, the Sharks captain Eben Etzebeth acknowledged what everybody knows, which is that the decider between the two most decorated teams in Championship Cup history, Toulouse and Leinster, is “the big final”.

In saying that there was perhaps an unwitting admission that that is where his team would really like to be. And Saturday’s game should provide those South Africans who watch it with an indication of what is needed if this country wants to compete.

Leinster, perennial front-runners on the URC log before their commitment to the Champions Cup business end tripped them up, gave some indication on the Easter Weekend of the gap that needs to be closed. While they came to South Africa with an understrength squad for their two URC games, and lost, they were at full strength for the home game against the Vodacom Bulls and won comfortably. And the Bulls have been the top performing local side in the URC this season.

The Sharks gave Toulouse a run for their money in last year’s Champions Cup quarterfinal before the five times champions ran away with it in the last 20 minutes. Toulouse comfortably beat a Bulls team that was admittedly inferior to the current one in the round of 16 in 2022/23. The DHL Stormers have come closest to showing that a European super-club can be beaten, winning narrowly against the then reigning champions, La Rochelle, in a pool game in December before losing by a point in the round of 16. But both those games were in Cape Town.


To be fair, it is not just the South African teams that have ground to make up on the elite. The English Premiership teams, who were frequent winners a few years back, have fallen back. The Northampton Saints and Harlequins put up creditable challenges in the semifinals but it was always going to be a bridge too far for them.

Once La Rochelle were knocked out by Leinster it was always going to be these two teams meeting in the final, and what a final it promises to be, with Toulouse being the French team with the most French internationals in it while everyone knows Leinster a shadow Ireland team. And it was Ireland of course who won the recent Guinness Six Nations.

When it comes to Leinster though, they must be feeling more like the Ireland team that once again failed at the quarterfinal stage of a Rugby World Cup and lost a second successive Grand Slam opportunity by losing unexpectedly to England than the one that was ranked No 1 in the world for most of last year.

They’ve fallen short in the Champions Cup final by the most agonising margins over the past two seasons, with La Rochelle coming back in both deciders, the first in Marseille and the second at the AVIVA Stadium in Dublin, to win it in the dying minutes. Ross Byrne portrayed what the squad as a whole would have felt when asked this week if it hurt.

“I don’t think it’s any secret how much it hurt everybody over the last two seasons and how much it means to us. So yes, it wasn’t easy,” said Byrne.


But yet here are Leinster back in the final and trying again. They won all their games in the competition leading up to this one, just like they did in the previous two years. That actually takes some doing considering the heartbreak they must have gone through losing to a La Rochelle team coached by a former Leinster arch-enemy when he was playing for Munster, Ronan O’Gara.

Lesser teams may have gone into a slump the season following such heartbreak at the last hurdle, like Liverpool did in a different sport after their quadruple dream ended in the final week of a season that included an agonising defeat in a Champions League final. Ironically, that game was played in Paris on the same day that Leinster lost their first of two successive finals in Marseille.

In coming back to challenge again Leinster have treaded a similar route to that followed by Manchester City before their solitary Champions League success last season. The difference being of course that Leinster have won the Champions Cup before, four times to be precise.

That angle, the one that sees Leinster vying to go level with Toulouse’s five wins, gives an extra edge to Saturday’s seismic must watch clash between the two super-powers of European rugby. If Leinster win they go level, but if they lose it goes to 6-4 for Toulouse. After blowing golden opportunities to go level in the previous two seasons that will be a bitter pill for the Dubliners to follow. What we know though is that they will probably be back in next year’s final regardless, for they are a special team.

Investec Champions Cup final

Leinster v Toulouse (Tottenham Hotspurt Stadium, Saturday 15.45)

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)

Final notes (courtesy of Investec Champions Cup)

• The two most decorated clubs in EPCR history, Leinster Rugby and Stade Toulousain, will both be appearing in their eighth tournament final. Stade Toulousain lead the way with five Champions Cup titles while Leinster have four.

• Leinster will be playing in a third Champions Cup final in succession equalling the feats of Stade Toulousain in 2003, 2004 and 2005, RC Toulon (2013, 2014, 2015) and Stade Rochelais (2021, 2022, 2023).

• If Cian Healy, who has appeared in a record seven finals to date, is selected in Leinster’s match day 23 for the final, and if the Irish province are victorious at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he will become the first player in history to win the tournament five times.

• Saturday’s final will be the seventh between Irish and French clubs with the Irish currently leading the way with four victories to two. 

• Antoine Dupont’s impressive all-round ability is reflected is this season’s tournament statistics. The Stade Toulousain captain is top of the carries (110) and offloads (20) categories, is second for both metres (534) and line breaks (13), and is in joint-third place for turnovers (9)


• Leo Cullen and Ugo Mola have each won the tournament as a player and as a head coach. Cullen captained Leinster to victories in 2009, 2011 and 2012 before winning as a coach in 2018 while Mola came off the bench for Stade Toulousain in the inaugural 1996 final and then led the club to the title in 2021.

• James Lowe’s scoring exploits have moved him up into the top 10 on the tournament’s all-time list. The Leinster wing, who became the first player to score a semifinal hat-trick with his treble against Northampton Saints at Croke Park, is now in joint eighth place with 27 tries from just 35 appearances.

• Players from 10 different countries – Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and Spain – are likely to feature in the showpiece match which will be watched by TV viewers in more than 150 countries worldwide.

• Investec Player of the Year nominee, Jamison Gibson-Park, is one of 12 players who have won the northern-southern hemisphere double of Champions Cup (Leinster 2018) and Super Rugby (Hurricanes 2016) titles. 

• Emile Ntamack who captained Stade Toulousain in the 1996 final, and Romain Ntamack, a winner in 2021, are the only father and son combination to have won the tournament. 

• Leinster hooker, Dan Sheehan, who scored two tries in last season’s final, is one of only five players to have achieved the feat in the tournament’s deciding match. The others are: Sebastien Carrat (CA Brive v Bath Rugby 1998), Leon Lloyd (Leicester Tigers v Stade Français Paris 2001), Johnny Sexton (Leinster Rugby v Northampton Saints 2011) and Simon Zebo (Racing 92 v Exeter Chiefs 2020).