LEINSTER fly the flag for the Celtic/Italian league this afternoon this afternoon as they seek to prevent Toulon from taking one more step towards history. So far no team has won the European Champions Cup (or its Heineken-sponsored predecessor) three times on the bounce but Toulon have already done the double and are just two victories away from making it three in a row, starting in the semi-final at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome today.
Leinster themselves are looking to create their own headlines. A victory in this inaugural Champions Cup would give them their fourth European Cup and enable them to draw level with Toulouse as the most successful side in Europe. Take into consideration Leinster’s 2013 Challenge Cup victory and the Dublin club will be claiming that title for their own.
Toulon have a good team spirit and enjoy each other’s company
You have to suspect that the majority of neutrals out there will be rooting for a Leinster victory. Not only are the Irish side long-odds underdogs but they have a tangible connection with their home town and their fans because the majority of their players are local boys, Dubliners born and bred.
Of the 15 players who start this semi-final, only four are from overseas – Ben Te’o, Jimmy Goperth, Isaac Boss and Mike McCarthy – and even then the latter two are eligible to represent Ireland despite being born in New Zealand and England respectively.
In contrast Toulon field just five Frenchmen in their XV, not one of whom was born anywhere near Toulon unless you count Freddie Michalak who hails from Toulouse, 200-plus miles away.
The little fly-half earned a rare start in the quarter-final but his 22 points coming from the boot sealed the deal against Wasps so he gets another outing this afternoon, and Leinster are sure to attack him whenever they can.
For all their millions and all their imports, the Direction Nationale de Controle de Gestion (DNCG) recently reported that Toulon were one of just two clubs in France to report a profit from last season (Brive the other) – no doubt helped by that cup run in Europe.
Leinster are up against Mourad Boujellal’s millions but in fairness the French club has an honesty and a work ethic without which no side, however talented, wins anything, a point which was made by Brian O’Driscoll.
“Look at a team like Real Madrid, they’ve brought in the best players before and not been able to click,” said the Irish legend. “Toulon have managed to do that. They seem to have a good team spirit and enjoy each other’s company and that is a big factor.
“They don’t have an overly elaborate game-plan. They are reactive to what individual flair creates, and their offloading and lines of running is down to quality players being able to read the game a fraction earlier.”
O’Driscoll went on to tip Toulon against his former club, but Leicester showed at Welford Road that the big spenders of Europe can be beaten as the English two-time winners (2001, 2002) bested the French two-time winners (2013, 2014) thanks to the sheer power of their set scrum. Sadly for Leinster, their own set scrum is solid rather than scary.
Both teams like to get into a rhythm and run through the phases at pace but, while Toulon have ball carriers and line breakers peppered throughout the team, Leinster will be overly reliant on Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien to do most of their heavy lifting. It’s not obvious that Leinster have enough big beasts to barrel their way over the advantage line on a regular basis and without front-foot ball the backs will struggle.
At least they did 12 months ago against the very same opposition. Last season Toulon beat Leinster 29-14 at the quarter-final stage of the competition, even if Leinster flyer Luke Fitzgerald insists that lessons have been learned from that day.
“We have looked at it alright,” said Fitzgerald, happily back playing after a problematic groin injury almost ended his career.
“There is definitely some learnings from it even though there is a slight difference having Jonny Wilkinson gone and their shape will be slightly different. But I think having Matt Giteau brings a new dimension to them. He caused us a lot of trouble last year. He’s actually my favourite player.
“It’s a weird thing to say coming up against him but he was always my favourite player to watch for a long, long time. I think he’s an absolute cracker of a player, so we have got to be really on our game to contain him.”
The good news for Leinster is that they should score points this afternoon – the Scarlets managed to score 18 of them at Stade Felix Mayol in the pool stages. The bad news is that Toulon usually score more than the opposition – they racked up 60 points when Ulster visited – and they have the weapons to do so, not least in the impressive shape of Mathieu Bastareaud.
“They obviously have a couple of dangers in terms of Bastareaud as well,” Fitzgerald continues. “I thought he did a bit of a job on us last year and I think we’re slightly better equipped to deal with it this year. Probably more prepared mentally as well because that is a battle.
“He’s 120 kilos, probably more, and to stop him you have got to be prepared for that.
“I’d like to think I’d make a big difference in the left, especially from a defensive perspective because that is 50 per cent of the game most of the time.”
If Leinster do stop Bastareaud in his tracks they will have to look out for the creativity of Giteau. If they keep the Aussie under wraps then they need to watch out for Bryan Habana on the wing. And when not keeping a weather eye on the Springbok speedster then Leinster need to be wary of the all-star breakaway unit, with Chris Masoe flanked by Juan Fernandez-Lobbe and Juan Smith. Steffon Armitage is reduced to a role off the bench.
It’s a daunting task but, as Matt O’Connor must impress upon his players, it is not an impossible one.
Munster fell to Toulon in last season’s semi-final at the very same ground but only after giving as good as they got for much of the match. The men in red scored the only try of the afternoon but lost out to six penalties from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. At least that is one man Leinster won’t have to worry about this afternoon.