Potential run of Dublin knock-out games gives Leinster a tantalizing route to the title


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WHEN THE TOULOUSE trio of Melvyn Jaminet, Antoine Dupont, and head coach Ugo Mola came into the media room at Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday after the French club’s win over Munster, it was surprising to hear them fielding questions about Leinster.

Our French isn’t as sharp as it should be, so it took a while to figure out what the local journalists were asking about. Were they mixing up two of the Irish provinces?

But no, it turned out these were questions about the possibility of Toulouse having to travel to Dublin to take on Leinster in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup.

With a round-of-16 clash at home to the Bulls and then a home quarter-final against either the Sharks or Munster to come, some of the French media clearly believe that Toulouse will reach the final four of this competition. And they’re clearly worried about the prospect of les Toulouseins returning to Dublin, where they were shredded by Leinster in last season’s semi-finals and also beaten in 2019 at the same stage.

You might think that the Toulouse crew would just bat this stuff away and give a stock answer about ‘one game at a time’ but this is French rugby. They’re empowered to share their opinions and they generally enjoy a chinwag with the media. So Toulouse boss Mola gave an intriguing answer when asked about Toulouse’s defeats away to Leinster in 2019 and 2022.

“We obviously think about that,” said Mola. “It’s hard to see how Leinster, given their journey so far and with the prospect of playing their semi-final and final at home, don’t have a tailor-made route to earning their fifth star.

“But this was also promised last year and La Rochelle played an XXL game in the final to stop it.”

ugo-mola

Dave Winter / INPHO
Toulouse boss Ugo Mola.

Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

Regardless of Mola’s words, several French journalists underlined their belief that Leinster are on track for this Champions Cup title. Some of them are convinced that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are destined to lead their team to the province’s fifth success in this competition.

In fairness, Leinster’s route to the title is enviable. Their brilliance in the pool stages, notching four bonus points from four games, has earned them home advantage all the way through the rest of the competition if they continue to progress.

Their round-of-16 clash with Ulster looks set to be moved to the Aviva Stadium and while the northern province gave Leinster a real fright there in the 2019 quarter-finals, Cullen’s side will be firm favorites against a side that scraped into the knock -out stages.

If they go through, Leinster would then host either Leicester or Edinburgh in Dublin in the quarter-finals – they could play that at the RDS or the Aviva.

Make it to the semi-finals, where ‘home country advantage’ applies, and the Aviva Stadium would host Leinster against Toulouse, the Bulls, the Sharks, or Munster.

As we know, the final has already been confirmed for the Aviva Stadium regardless of who makes it. That home decider is a tantalizing prospect for Leinster. It wouldn’t necessarily be Johnny Sexton’s last game for the province given that the URC final is the following weekend in May. That decider would almost certainly be in Dublin if Leinster made it [the highest-ranked club hosts the final]so Sexton could wrap up his time in blue by helping them to a double on home soil in the space of a week.

It would be some way for Stuart Lancaster to sign off too, but he and Cullen will be guarding against any complacency over the coming months. It should help that Leinster’s scrum and maul have shown weaknesses again recently, while they have been wasteful in the opposition 22 even while scoring an impressive 28 tries in four games. Scarily for other teams, Leinster have lots of room to improve.

Assessing the other side of the draw, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle look well placed to possibly make it a repeat of last season’s Champions Cup final in Marseille.

ronan-ogara-celebrates

James Crombie / INPHO
La Rochelle won four out of four in the pool stage.

James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

They host Gloucester in the round-of-16 and if they win that, La Rochelle will be at home against Saracens or the Ospreys. Their possible semi-final would be in France against Exeter, the Stormers, Montpellier, or Harlequins.

Of course, the other remaining 14 clubs will have plenty to say about any predictions of a Leinster v La Rochelle final.

Toulouse were the other side to win all four of their pool games and their squad is stacked with Grand Slam winners. They weren’t at their best on Sunday but they enjoyed passages that showed off their awesome blend of power, skill, and toughness.

As for the other two Irish provinces, the path to a possible final looks tough. Munster will need to beat the Sharks away to earn a quarter-final either away to Toulouse or at home to the Bulls.

Win that and they would have a semi-final away to Leinster at the Aviva, with ‘home country advantage’ against Ulster [Páirc Uí Chaoimh anyone?]away to Leicester, or away to Edinburgh.

Dan McFarland’s Ulster starts with that round-of-16 clash against Leinster, and would then travel to either Leicester or Edinburgh in the quarter-finals.

Should they reach the semi-finals, Ulster would give up home country advantage to Toulouse or Munster, but if they met the Sharks or Bulls, that game would be played on European soil.

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So lots of ifs, buts, and maybes. Leinster are the favorites to claim their first title since 2018, but as Mola pointed out, there are no guarantees in the Champions Cup. Whatever about the deeply unpopular pool-stage format, these knock-outs promise to be riveting.

Round of 16

[31 March, 1/2 April]

  • R16 1: Leinster v Ulster
  • R16 2: Exeter v Montpellier
  • R16 3: Sharks v Munster
  • R16 4: Saracens v Ospreys
  • R16 5: Leicester v Edinburgh
  • R16 6: Stormers v Harlequins
  • R16 7: Toulouse v Bulls
  • R16 8: La Rochelle v Gloucester

The four highest-ranked clubs in each pool have home advantage

Quarter-finals:

[7/8/9 April]

  • QF 1: Winner R16 1 v Winner R16 5
  • QF 2: Winner R16 7 v Winner R16 3
  • QF 3: Winner R16 2 v Winner R16 6
  • QF 4: Winner R16 8 v Winner R16 4

The highest-ranked clubs from the pool stage will have home advantage

Semi-finals:

[28/29/30 April]

  • SF 1: Winner QF 1 v Winner QF 2
  • SF 2: Winner QF 3 v Winner QF 4

The matches will be played in Europe and the highest-ranked clubs from the pool stage will have home country advantage

2023 Heineken Champions Cup final:

[Saturday 20 May]

Aviva Stadium, Dublin

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