‘We’re treating it as a final’: Toulouse ready to raid the RDS

THE SLEEPING GIANT has woken, but the resurrection and resurgence of Toulouse as a European force will be given its stiffest litmus test in front of a sold-out RDS crowd on Saturday lunchtime.

Arriving in Dublin on a 12-game unbeaten run and as one of just three teams in this year’s Heineken Champions Cup with four wins from four, a visit to the home of the champions will provide a true barometer of the French side’s progress.

Rynhardt Elstadt in action against Leinster last October. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Not only have Toulouse lost each of their last four games away to Irish opposition, three of which have come by margins of more than 20 points, but they must do what no team has done since Toulon in 2015 — beat Leinster in Dublin in the Champions Cup.

Leo Cullen’s side have now won their last 11 home games in Europe and having experienced the pain of defeat to Toulouse in round two back in October, will not be prepared to have their home fortress raided in such a high-stakes encounter.

The sell-out rendezvous has become a Pool 1 decider as the two most successful clubs in European rugby history go head-to-head with top spot and eventual qualification for the quarter-finals on the line. It doesn’t really get much bigger than this.

Victory for the Top 14 outfit would not only give them a clean sweep of away wins in the pool, but by denying Leinster two losing bonus points, would also book their place in the quarter-finals for the 17th time with a game to spare.

“We are looking forward to the match, it’s a really big match, probably one of the biggest of the season,” flanker Rynhardt Elstadt tells The42.

“Leinster are one of the top teams out there, and when you want to be the best, you have to compete and beat the best.

“We are going to go full out and see if we can take it. It’s going to be a tough one as you never beat Leinster in Dublin. It’s their home town but rugby is rugby and any day you can beat any time. We’ve prepared as normal but we’re treating it as a final because it’s going to be a massive game.”

Since toppling Leinster at the Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse’s season — both domestically and in Europe — has gathered momentum and they’re not only in a strong position in the Champions Cup, but currently second in the Top 14 table as they bid for a first league title in six years.

The four-time European winners have played some of the most eye-catching attacking rugby in this year’s competition and with an array of exciting backline talent, and powerful, skilful forwards, pose a real threat to Leinster’s defence of the trophy.

“We just target the next match and I think that’s what’s making us a good team,” 29-year-old Elstadt explains.

The South African has become a key player for Toulouse. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We’re never putting focus on one team, we prepare for each game the same. Once you’ve beaten Leinster, you know they’re beatable. It’s not like they’re unbeatable. It has given us a bit of confidence but it’s not all from that, we’re just taking it week-by-week.

“The team environment is good at this stage, there are a lot of positives. The team is very young and there is a bit of confidence in the youngsters and we’ve got a good footing.

“We’re still in the building phase, we’re still building a team for the next year or the year after. A lot of the players in the past aren’t here anymore, so you can only create what you’ve got now.”

Now nine years since they last reigned supreme in Europe, and six since their last appearance in the final, Toulouse’s renaissance under coach Ugo Mola has taken many by surprise.

But the emergence of homegrown French talent, as well as experienced and quality overseas signings such as South African Elstadt and All Black Jerome Kaino, has seen them develop into a real force again.

23-year-old fullback Thomas Ramos is the competition’s leading points scorer this term, and alongside Maxime Medard and Cheslin Kolbe, are central to Toulouse’s counter-attacking and clinical style of play.

Incredibly, only once in 18 matches played this season have Toulouse named fewer than 10 players who’ve come through the club’s youth academy. In the draw against Clermont before Christmas, 14 of the starting line-up were former youth players. 

For Elstadt, who joined the French club from the Stormers in 2017, it has been an enjoyable experience slotting into the Toulouse back row alongside Kaino.

“It has been amazing,” he continues. “I like the style of play as well, it suits me. I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying it a lot.

“I had a good innings back home, there were two years when I had two bad injuries. I was playing there since 2010 [with Western Province and then Stormers] and at some stage you need to make a move, you can’t always stay at the same place.

“I was getting in a comfort zone and it’s always bad to be in a comfort zone, you always need to push boundaries. It was either France or Japan and I thought I wanted to try something totally different, and I want to go to France. So far, so good.”

Elstadt is in his second season with Toulouse. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The former South Africa U20 international has started all four European games this season and has really established himself as an important component of the Toulouse pack, particularly in the round two game when Kaino was suspended for the 28-27 defeat of Leinster. 

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“He brings a lot of experience and calmness to the team. It’s a really good boost for us [to have Kaino back], he’s a phenomenal player. He makes things a lot easier on the pitch. He just communicates and as a ball-carrier, he’s a very good player.

“I’m just a normal, simple player. Every week I try and play better and better so I hope I can have a good match against Leinster because they’re a really, really good team. You’ve got to match yourself against the best because it’s like an international side.

With a capacity crowd set to create a memorable atmosphere at the RDS, Elstadt adds that he’s looking forward to the prospect of playing in Dublin.

“It will be my first time playing in Ireland,” he adds. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve just heard it’s one of the most amazing places to play, one of the best atmospheres to play in, especially in Dublin. I can’t wait.

“And it’s an enormous match. We’ll treat it as a final, we’ll go full out. The boys will be coming out firing.

“If we can have a win there, jeez, it will be amazing for us but like I said you have to be real, we’re playing against Leinster in Leinster. It’s a very, very tough match.”

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:

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