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The Breakdown | Dupont, Lowe and other stars align for dazzling Champions Cup final
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The Breakdown | Dupont, Lowe and other stars align for dazzling Champions Cup final

Occasionally in sport the planets align. The two best golfers in the world teeing off together in the final round of an Open Championship, for example, or two exceptional thoroughbreds thundering neck and neck up the straight at Ascot. The champion deserves to be hailed as special but, in truth, the quality is so collectively good that everybody wins.

It could just be one of those pluperfect days in rugby union this weekend. Toulouse and Leinster have already featured in a record seven Champions Cup finals apiece and have won the club game’s ultimate trophy nine times between them. The French aristocrats possess the world’s best player in Antoine Dupont and ooze class and pedigree in equal amounts. Leinster will be represented at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium bymost of the Ireland squad who have ruled the Six Nations.

Mix up those high-grade ingredients, set them in an impressive modern stadium in one of the world’s major cities and the only danger is of suffocation by inflated expectation. Except that both teams have experienced enough big matches not to be overly fazed and Saturday’s weather forecast is also encouraging. Profile-wise, it is as close to a dream final as the organisers could have asked for.

Whether it ends up persuading the youngsters of north London to exchange a round ball for an oval-shaped one is another matter but, on paper at least, this is a fixture with more global resonance than any in the tournament’s 27-season history. Brive, Bath, Ulster, Northampton, Leicester, Wasps, Munster, Toulon, Saracens, Exeter and La Rochelle are all past champions with their own proudly distinct identities but none have the current pulling power of this year’s two finalists.

Leinster attracted 82,300 to their semi-final at Croke Park, selling all the tickets in a matter of hours. Toulouse have an overall budget of €46.3m, the biggest in France. When one of their players sneezes, someone will hasten to social media to share the news. Big is not always beautiful but this heavyweight clash of the titans is a different matter.

James Lowe at a sold-out Croke Park against Northampton in Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-finalView image in fullscreen

Take Dupont and his opposite number Jamison Gibson-Park, for example. These two do not so much make their respective sides tick as run the entire clock shop. Watching Dupont, after a stupendously intense World Cup and a high-profile mid-season switch to sevens, toying with Exeter in the quarter-finals was to be further convinced we are in the presence of someone who is redefining the game of rugby in real time.

Gibson-Park is a different type of player but equally alert, whether to the possibility of a try-scoring inside ball from a line-breaking colleague or potential space out wide for his mate James Lowe. When Leinster are at their slickest he is at the buzzing, probing heart of everything, particularly since the retirement of the great Johnny Sexton.

In addition to the two brilliant catalysts at scrum-half, the shortlist for this year’s overall player of the year award also includes three other Leinster players. Lowe is unsurprisingly one, after another hugely influential campaign, along with the equally proactive Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan. Watch them both and marvel at their range of skills, their mobility and their work-rate and then realise they are only 26 and 25 years old respectively.

The tasty match-ups go on and on: Sheehan v Peato Mauvaka and Tadhg Furlong v Cyril Baille in the front-row, the Englishman Jack Willis against Josh van der Flier at the breakdown. Blair Kinghorn has been playing and kicking splendidly for Toulouse; could he be the wildcard who ultimately scuppers lofty Irish ambitions, having been on the receiving end for Scotland at the World Cup?

It is the manner in which the two sides play as much as the individuals involved, though, that really set them apart. Both can be physical, quick and relentless but, above all, they are smart and can switch gear in a flash. Watch out for Toulouse’s quick line-outs, Mauvaka or Dupont against unsuspecting defenders, and Leinster’s Jacques Nienaber-driven blitz defence. South Africa nudged France out of their own World Cup last autumn and if Nienaber can do a number on Stade’s potent attack this weekend it really will be an impressive double.

Whatever happens it already seems a decent bet for inclusion among the tournament’s most memorable showpieces. When it comes to the most magnificent there are probably seven timeless contenders, starting with the coruscating rugby played by Brive to beat Leicester 28-9 in Cardiff back in 1997. Leicester’s 34-30 victory over Stade Francais at the Parc des Princes in 2001 featured one of the great last-gasp scores, as did Wasps v Toulouse at Twickenham exactly two decades ago. Leinster’s revival from 22-6 down against Northampton in 2011 ranks among the game’s greatest comebacks, with Exeter’s 31-27 win over Racing 92 in 2020 sealing the ultimate underdogs’ rise. And then there was last season’s thriller, with the similarly watchable La Rochelle and Leinster trading blow for blow in perhaps the highest-calibre final of them all.

It will be a tough ask to knock any of those from the podium but if any two sides are equipped to serve up a classic it is surely Leinster and Toulouse. Think Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and their “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977. Or Grundy and Bustino in the “Race of the Century” at Ascot in 1975. Never mind the all-Manchester FA Cup final at Wembley this weekend. When the best go head to head there is not a hotter ticket in town.

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Source: theguardian.com