Reigning champions Leinster and in-form Toulouse are both reaping the rewards from placing their faith in local talent, according to two-time Heineken Champions Cup winner, Ben Kay.
The BT Sport pundit sat down with BTSport.com to preview this weekend’s Champions Cup fixtures, with particular focus given to Toulouse’s trip to Dublin, which is expected to be the pick of 10 live games on BT Sport.
The two European dynasties meet in a mouth-watering clash this Saturday – live on BT Sport 2 from 12:30pm – in a match that is likely to decide Pool One.
Three-time winners Toulouse have played some of the best attacking rugby in the competition so far and will be assured of top spot and a likely home quarter-final tie if they can win at the RDS Arena this weekend.
Hosts Leinster, who narrowly lost by a single point in Toulouse back in October, will probably have to beat the Top 14 outfit and win away at Wasps next weekend to snatch the pool.
While the four-time winners and pre-tournament favourites were well-fancied to sail through the pool stages, Toulouse’s resurgence has taken many by surprise.
The Top 14 club have won all four of their pool-stage matches so far after failing to qualify for last year’s competition. So what’s behind their renaissance?
“They’re obviously a huge, huge club and the whole area is geared up to support them,” said Kay, who faced off against Toulouse on a number of occasions during his 11-year career with Leicester Tigers.
Toulouse have reached the final of Europe's elite competition on six separate occasions, but their last outing came in 2010.
“Before things started to slip, they were such a rich club that they were able to buy in people from abroad, but now they’re giving opportunities to local talent.
“Mix that with some of the stars that they can afford to bring in and you've got a lovely combination of people who know the history of Toulouse – and really want to play for Toulouse – merged with some stardust as well.”
23-year-old full-back Thomas Ramos – currently the leading points scorer in this season’s Champions Cup – and prop Dorian Aldegheri are two of five uncapped players to be named in France’s Six Nations squad.
The Toulouse duo are among a number of young French players benefiting from the introduction of French Rugby Federation’s 2017 quota that stipulated Top 14 teams must name at least 14 players who had spent at least three seasons at a French club’s youth academy in their matchday squads.
Kay now expects to see a shift away from French rugby's obsession with signing expensive foreign imports, towards a model built around blooding homegrown talent.
“When they first brought the quota in there were financial implications if you didn’t have enough French players in your squad, but now teams can be deducted points in the Top 14, so clubs are taking it more seriously.
“The era of teams like Toulon having a complete squad of ‘Galacticos’ has gone. Now they are having to develop their own talent as well.”
Toulouse's opponents Leinster have been rocked by the news that fly-half Jonathan Sexton will miss Saturday’s pivotal clash with a calf strain, but Kay believes the Irish province have enough strength in depth to maintain their push for a record-breaking fifth European Cup.
“They’ve had big names leave, like Brian [O’Driscoll], and they’ve lost a lot of the stars that were integral to them winning European Cups and yet they’ve been able to fill those gaps seamlessly – like Toulouse – with local talent,” he said.
“For me, a lot of it is down to the structure that’s been put in place in terms of the province and the [Irish union], but also the quality of the coaching.
“Joe Schmidt played a huge part in creating that before he went to the Ireland job – but he also brought in Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, who have both done fantastic jobs.
“Everything is going in the right direction for them. They’re obviously well supported, being Dublin-based, and they’re riding on a crest of a wave right now.
“The whole system is geared up to their success and it’s helping Ireland as well.
“I genuinely believe Ireland’s success at international level is down to the success of Leinster.”
Lancaster has resurrected his career with Leinster after he was sacked as England head coach after the 2015 World Cup when they became the first hosts ever to be knocked out at the pool stages.
With the RFU already planning for Eddie Jones departure, Kay says he would not be surprised if Lancaster made a stunning return to the England top job, with one significant caveat.
“He’s obviously got the experience, and I’m sure he could do it, but I’ve preferred seeing Stuart in a tracksuit, not being distracted by all the other duties an England head coach has to deal with.
“You could perhaps have Stuart Lancaster as the head coach but with a director of rugby role above him, someone who doesn’t get their tracksuit on but looks after everything else to take a lot of the heat of the head coach.
Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter has been mooted as a possible candidate to work above an England head coach after Jones vacates his position.
“I’m not sure Rob would want to leave!” said Kay. “He’s obviously a local lad from Devon and he’s been able to pull on those connections to get Exeter to where they are now – but it’s not a given that he could do that with England.
“But he would certainly be in contention, as would someone like Dean Richards, who doesn’t put the tracksuit on but could still run a lot of the other stuff very well.”
Exeter have a glimmer of hope of reaching the quarter-finals after beating Pool Two rivals Glocuester at Kingsholm last time out.
Victory over Castres this weekend would keep them in touch with pool leaders Munster, who they face in the final round of pool-stage games in two weeks’ time.
With the Chiefs facing an uphill task to reach the last eight, Kay backed Baxter's side to bounce back next year if they are dumped out of Europe this weekend.
“Once you fail to win a home game in a competitive group like theirs it becomes difficult for any team to progress," said Kay.
“I don’t think you could say that the Exeter gameplan could never work in Europe, because I’m sure it would.
“Last season they got beat by the eventual winners at their place and then gave a great account of themselves at the Aviva Stadium.
“I’m sure it’s just circumstance but, also, it takes a few disappointments to learn important lessons, but I wouldn’t rule them out of reaching the knockout stages – either this year or next."
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