In terms of flexing your significant muscle, starting arguably the world’s best loosehead on the bench for a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final is right up there.
hat tactic might have paid off against Munster last week, but Leinster, and in particular Tadhg Furlong, present such a superior challenge that Toulouse were never going to leave Cyril Baille in reserve this time around.
The battle lines were drawn in Paris during the Six Nations earlier this year, and as an all-Irish and French heavyweight front-row gets set to lock horns in Dublin once again, it has all the makings of being an enthralling battle for the ages.
You could pick any number of fascinating sub-plots from Saturday’s European semi-final, and while the half-backs will naturally garner much of the attention, this is a game that will be won and lost up front.
Like Leinster, Toulouse have a world-class front-row capable of mixing brute force with more subtle touches in open play.
Much of France’s Grand Slam success was based on the power of their front-row, and that Toulouse can call upon Baille and Julien Marchand, as well as the outstanding Peato Mauvaka from the bench, tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the defending champions’ pack.
Toulouse obliterated the Munster scrum and that they did so all the while Baille was on the bench was a serious statement of intent.
Leinster, meanwhile, had their issues at scrum time in Welford Road, with Mathieu Raynal centre of attention once again.
Leo Cullen wasn’t happy with some of the French referee’s decisions last weekend, and while the Leinster head coach relayed that through the official channels, there will be plenty of scrutiny on Karl Dickson, who takes charge today.
Ireland conceded two scrum penalties at the Stade de France back in February, and as Furlong, Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher, who was forced off early that evening, go head-to-head with Baille, Marchand and Dorian Aldegheri, who wasn’t involved in that French win, they will be mindful of painting the right pictures for Dickson.
If you think there is very little to separate the two front-rows on paper, then consider that a mere kilogram is all that separates them in the weight stakes, with Leinster holding the very slight advantage.
Leinster and Ireland are far from poor scrummagers, yet considering how Toulouse got so much joy out of going after the Munster set-piece, and then when you remember Leinster coughed up several scrum penalties against Leicester, it would be no surprise to see the French side look to get into the referee’s head early on.
As one of the beefy locks providing even more bulk to the scrum, Rory Arnold sums up his role by simply saying: “I’ll just push as hard as I can and hopefully end up on top.”
Of course it runs far deeper than that, but the mentality of this Toulouse pack is such that for all Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are capable of creating something out of nothing, it all starts up front.
“There are French internationals there and they’re very qualified, they’ve played in international rugby for a while,” Australian international Arnold continues.
“I guess when you have got quality forwards around, you’re all just feeding off each other.
“The set-piece battle is going to be massive for us, scrum, maul, lineout, you’ve got a solid base that’s going to go a long way towards getting a result.
“So I think we just have to continue to build on the things we got right last week in and around our scrum, tweak a few things around lineout because we know they’ve got a good lineout defence and hopefully it’s good enough to get the result.”
For Cullen, it’s about ensuring that his side don’t allow Toulouse get the edge on them up front, which is why the first scrum will likely set the tone for what is to come.
“You can see the mentality of Leicester pretty clearly,” Cullen said, reflecting on last week’s issues at Welford Road.
“They drowned the pitch in water, so they were trying to turn it into more of a static battle, clearly. That was certainly what I took from it.
There was plenty of talk about some of the individuals. I thought we were very clean in the first half, the way we exited, we put a lot of pressure on their scrum.
“Some of those calls, we have dealt with that sort of feedback,
“I thought Leicester changed their mentality in the second half. They doubled down on pushing the boundaries, I think, is polite way of saying it.
“Then the referee has to deal with that. The referee has to deal with pictures. If people want to push the boundaries, they deal with the consequences if they get penalised.
“We had a few things that we wanted to feed back off last week. This week, Toulouse have a slightly different attitude.
“Again, sometimes it’s the individuals, sometimes it’s the mentality of the team, but we have to be able to deal with all of those parts of the game because the static battles are a huge part of knockout rugby.
“We have some good players in that front-row, Tadhg, Andrew and Rónan. It’s a very, very powerful front-row. We expect them to put in a big performance and gain dominance in that area for sure.”
Ireland have already benefited from Porter’s switch to loosehead but these are the big occasions that Leinster can really reap the rewards.
Porter is well capable of edging Aldegheri, while Furlong versus Baille, and Kelleher versus Marchand is about as box-office as it gets.
“They’re both obviously quality operators,” Kelleher said of the prospect of facing hookers Marchand and Mauvaka.
“We’ve seen that over the last two or three years, they’ve both excelled. It’s similar to here, in that it is such a competitive position.
“They’re both incredible ball-carriers, good in defence and good in their poach so they are all-rounders. It’s just about making sure that we are on top of our detail and able to negate them and take the game to them.”
As much as the starting front-rows are littered with explosive ability, both benches will also have a big role to play today.
Dan Sheehan will be expected to match Mauvaka’s pace and power, while Cian Healy and Michael Ala’alatoa will bring plenty of experience when called upon.
France won the Six Nations battle but now on home soil, it’s up to Ireland’s front-row to get one back by dethroning Toulouse and driving Leinster into another European final.