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Three key talking points for the Investec Champions Cup final

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Saturday May 25, 2024

The stage is set, the teams have been named and all that awaits is a heavyweight slugfest for the ages as European club rugby’s two most successful sides get set to do battle.

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Naming their teams yesterday afternoon, four-time European Cup winners Leinster and five-time champions Toulouse will meet for the first time in a final in their long, illustrious rivalry.

Although this is the first time the two sides have met at this stage, they will be incredibly familiar with one another, having met in the last two seasons at the semi-final stage. On both occasions, it would be the Irish side that would score more than forty points to send Toulouse packing.

In what would then prove to be a semi-sadistic game of rock, paper, scissors,  Leinster would come up agonisingly short against Toulouse’s Top 14 rivals La Rochelle in both finals with a combined losing margin of four points. A few weeks later, Toulouse would down the very same La Rochelle in the Top 14 final by three points.

Fast forward to 2024, and Leinster have now defeated La Rochelle twice, firstly on the road in biblical conditions and then again in a dominant quarterfinal display at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Toulouse, on the other hand, has coasted through the pool stages before seeing off two Premiership speedbumps in Exeter and Harlequins, who both put in impressive displays before ultimately succumbing to the power game of the French side.

Now, mere hours from kick-off, the question will be, can Leinster continue their dominance over the men in black, or will the French side buck the trend and pull two clear atop the total title count?

Here are three key narratives that will go a long way toward deciding this afternoon’s fixture.

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Halfback showdown
The two best scrumhalves in the game will renew their budding rivalry for the first time in 2024 following Antoine Dupont’s early season sojourn into the world of 7s rugby. During Dupont’s Six Nations absence, Jamison Gibson-Park was head and shoulders above the rest as the Championship’s preeminent scrumhalf. Taking over the mantle as chief playmaker following Johnny Sexton’s retirement, JGP, in conjunction with Jack Crowley, spearheaded Ireland’s successful title defence. At the club level, the 32-year-old has been a step ahead at every turn this season and is rightly the odds on being the favourite to be named player of the tournament. Whilst all is certainly rosey in the Leinster camp, JGP and his teammates will be all too aware that this afternoon, they will have to contain the best player in the game, who himself has been in rampant form in 2024. Having dipped his toe into the SVNS seas earlier this season, Dupont, almost head scratchingly, has found yet another gear following his time in the shortened form of the game. Clearly relishing the time and space afforded to him on the SVNS circuit, Dupont has simply hit copy and paste on his return to the world of XVs. Having already been a master of the trail run, Dupont is now even more of an open-field threat and appears to have had his prefrontal cortex refreshed as he uses the rugby pitch as his canvas to paint his rugby masterpieces. Whilst Dupont’s rugby abilities continue to elevate, JGP has quite possibly taken the mantle as the best pure scrumhalf in the world. The Kiwi-born Irish international has an uncanny ability to complete every scrumhalf duty to a truly world-class level. Whether it is a clearing box kick, exceptional trail run or game-changing pass, JGP has mastered the art of scrumhalf play. Thus, today’s fixture will be an opportunity for the world’s best player to collide with the game’s preeminent nine.

Year of redemption
As touched upon in the intro to this article, 2024 has been a year of redemption, with Leinster pulling the curtain down on their boogeymen of the last three years with back-to-back wins over La Rochelle. Leo Cullen and his team hope this trend will be exclusively limited to those wearing blue and not black. In 2022 and 2023, the semi-final match-up between the two sides had key factors that led to the most unlikely of skewed results as they pulled away to double-digit wins on both occasions. Starting with 2022, where a beleaguered Toulouse outfit trudged onto the Aviva Stadium turf a mere week after an overtime thriller against Munster in the quarterfinal, which went all the way to a penalty shootout. This result clearly took its toll as Dupont and co appeared to have cement in their boots, which had been firmly roughened up by a monumental Munster effort. A year later and a yellow card to Thomas Ramos for a brain fart moment which saw him intentionally knock on a Leinster ball despite a clear line of defence tracking back what looked to be a standard short-side attack. This dismissal would prove costly as Leinster blitzed their visitors for two tries in this period to take a commanding two-score lead. Leinster, who are led by the ultimate pragmatist in Leo Cullen, will be aware of this, and with the championship gumption of new coach Jacques Nienaber now involved, will approach today’s clash as a new chapter. Toulouse, on the other hand, will be buying from blood and, given their track record of winning finals, will be equally confident in reversing the fast flow of blue tide.

Ryan’s impact
Arguably the most underrated aspect of Leinster’s final loss last season was the early departure of key leader and physical enforcer James Ryan. The Ireland lock has endured the most trying twelve months of his career since last year’s final, with injuries ruling him out of both the World Cup quarterfinal and the crunch Guinness Six Nations clash with England. His absence in all three fixtures was perhaps underestimated, given the level of physicality and calm he brings to proceedings. Throw into the mix the clear bump in line-out success when he is on the park and one gets a true picture of just how influential he is to both Leinster and Ireland. In his absence, teammate Joe McCarthy became a bona fide star and the new enforcer for both province and country. Yet, instead of viewing this as a one-in, one-out situation, the duo look set to compliment one another with Ryan’s ability to smash rucks and control the tight phases, opening more open field opportunities for McCarthy. Thus, Ryan’s return to the Leinster bench following the freak accident he suffered during the Six Nations might well prove to be the biggest deciding factor in today’s final. Having once again opted for a 6-2 bench split, Cullen will call on Ryan, along with Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, to close out the match with fresh legs and, crucial, a clear mind in what is a very South African ‘bomb squad’ style approach.

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Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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