Leinster v Toulon showdown the pick of Champions Cup’s Easter feast


Not so long ago the Easter weekend was reserved for end-of-season club tours and festival frolics. These days the holiday egg chasing is a great deal more serious with 32 teams limbering up for crucial European knockout ties that could yet shape how the tournament itself evolves in the coming years.

Because of the impact of Covid‑19 on the pool phases the organiser, European Professional Club Rugby, has opted to introduce a round of 16 in the Heineken Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup followed by quarter-finals next week. The fresh draw has produced a feast of compelling cross-border fixtures and, if the rugby proves suitably appetising to the public and the broadcasters, the format could be repeated in future, the Guardian understands.

The looming Good Friday disagreement between two former European champions, Leinster and Toulon, in Dublin offers a prime example of the sudden-death frisson. From 2009 to 2018 the two clubs collected seven European Cups and, following France’s recent Six Nations victory against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, there will be no complacency in Leinster ranks despite Toulon’s heavy 54-16 defeat by Lyon last week and the subsequent suspension of their former All Black centre Ma’a Nonu.

That mood is reflected by Leinster’s all-international teamsheet and the return of Johnny Sexton as captain as the Pro14 champions look to secure a quarter-final fixture against Exeter or Lyon. The proximity of so many big fixtures immediately after a hectic Six Nations, though, allows scant recovery time and some feel it will favour certain nations more than others.

No one used to enjoy the traditional pool cut and thrust more than Munster in their title-winning years and Jerry Flannery, the former Ireland hooker now coaching at Harlequins, reckons it suited the Irish provinces perfectly. “I loved the old format: having to fight your way through a group. It becomes so tight and, having been used to working in the Irish system, it is a really good precursor to Test rugby. In my view guys who can perform at that level are ready to play Test rugby.”

With the new format there is less certainty – “This one feels a little bit like: ‘We’re under pressure for time, let’s get the games done’” – and Flannery feels the “relentless” nature of the Premiership might give them a battle-hardened edge over some of their Pro14 opponents. “I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse – and Exeter are the current European champions – but it’s different,” says Flannery.

“When I was at Munster I respected the Premiership teams we played but the Irish teams were able to build their seasons towards Europe and Test rugby. This season, from what I’ve watched, the Pro14 has not been competitive outside the Irish teams. It’s been the worst I’ve seen it. The Pro14 is certainly not as physical as the Premiership.”

Who knows, furthermore, what hidden mental toll the Six Nations has exacted on certain key individuals? It will be interesting to see how France’s international contingent back up after their epic contests against Wales and Scotland with the national captain, Charles Ollivon, packing down for Toulon alongside his national colleagues Romain Taofifénua and Swan Rebbadj, not to mention the vastly experienced Sergio Parisse and Eben Etzebeth.

Leinster will be missing Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose but their Lions hopefuls Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan all start. Gloucester, meanwhile, welcome back Scotland’s Chris Harris to their midfield against a strong looking La Rochelle, currently second behind Toulouse in the Top 14. The giant former Saracen lock Will Skelton features for the visitors with the outstanding French No 8 Grégory Alldritt on the bench.

The latter game will be watched by the England head coach, Eddie Jones, who will be attending four matches over the weekend. He is even planning to take in two Saturday games, starting with Wasps against Clermont Auvergne at lunchtime before risking the holiday traffic down the M5 to study the defending champions, Exeter, against the upwardly mobile French side Lyon.

Along with his assistants Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot, he also plans to spend his Easter Sunday evening at the Stoop where Harlequins will meet Ulster in the Challenge Cup, the final fixture of a jam-packed weekend set to examine the credentials of several would-be English representatives.

If Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks can win in Bordeaux and Llanelli respectively, it would certainly highlight a gap between England’s fifth‑placed finish in the Six Nations and the competitiveness of their leading clubs.