Toulouse coach Ugo Mola makes no bones about it: his players made up the backbone of France’s Six Nations Grand Slam-winning squad and his team is now paying a heavy price for that success.
The European champions saw their bid to defend their title take a nosedive last week when Ulster beat them 26-20 in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.
Pressure will be high when Toulouse make the trip to Belfast for the second leg on Saturday.
“Of the 10 internationals who finished the Grand Slam adventure, seven were affected by direct or indirect post-championship injuries,” Mola said.
The coach had already overseen a rocky patch for the club, which lost a string of Top 14 matches in the absence of their internationals including skipper Antoine Dupont and playmaker Romain Ntamack.
The pair, along with other stars of France’s first Grand Slam in 12 years, has been brought straight back into action at club level.
However, Dupont missed training on Tuesday due to being ‘sick’ according to the club and France hooker Julien Marchand is out due to a calf injury.
“It’s true that we didn’t have too much of a break in the wake of the Six Nations,” admitted Ntamack.
“But we wanted to get back playing with our friends at the club as quickly as possible. Physically it’s fine, psychologically too, we feel pretty good.
“We’ll just try to recuperate as much as possible as soon as we have the opportunity.”
That chance of a few days off will come after the trip to Belfast.
“Honestly, I don’t have much choice,” Mola said. “It gets to the point where it can’t be so unrelenting, I don’t want to take risks with their health.”
Ulster boast a positive home record against the five-time European champions, with four wins and two losses in the continental competition.
Ulster’s Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen said a second title (after a first in 1999) was within his side’s reach.
“We are in touching distance but not there yet,” the South African said.
“This weekend is another big game for us and hopefully we can turn up and get our double on Toulouse.”
Toulouse, Vermuelen told BBC, have “a big squad and they have done it in the past –- they are defending champions and it is going to be a difficult task for us, but we are happy to be playing at home and in front of our fans”.
There will also be a third installment of La Rochelle versus Bordeaux-Begles, the former having come out winners in the Top 14 (16-15) and European first leg (31-13) on consecutive weekends.
La Rochelle coach Ronan O’Gara and Bordeaux counterpart Christophe Urios were sanctioned Thursday after a bad-tempered touchline spat during the league game.
After the pair exchanged insults, Urios aimed a slap at the ex-Ireland international, later dubbing him an “insufferable” trouble maker.
The body running professional rugby in France, the LNR, found both coaches guilty of “ill-discipline and agitation”, but handed them a reprimand rather than a suspension.
O’Gara will still be absent from the dugout, currently into the second and final week of an unrelated touchline ban for having previously criticised refereeing standards in another La Rochelle league match.
Four-time champions Leinster host Irish rivals Connacht and Sale travel to Bristol in Friday’s action — with the latter holding just a one point advantage from the first leg.
Saturday also sees Harlequins hosting Montpellier, Munster welcoming Exeter and Leicester taking on Clermont, while Easter Sunday features the Parisian derby, Racing 92 clashing with cross-city rivals Stade Francais.
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