In 2006, Leinster claimed one of the biggest wins in Heineken Cup history by defeating the reigning champions, Toulouse, in the quarter finals in the French club’s own backyard. Now, with history almost seemingly repeating itself, Leinster will be calling on the spirit of 06 to see them through to yet another semi-final.
If you’re the gaming sort, cast your mind back about six years or so and you may remember a game on the Playstation imaginatively named Rugby 08. It was a semi-decent offering but by far the best part of the game was the ability to take a team from the very bottom rung and turn them into a ‘dream team’ of sorts by signing the world’s best players. It was when I was enjoying a trip down this particular memory lane that I eventually realised where I’d seen this Toulon side before – they’re effectively the Rugby 08 dream team.
Guys like Wilkinson (who returns to the line-up in place of Freddie Michalak), Sheridan, Castrogiovanni, Mitchell, Giteau and Habana are all legends of the game and some of the best players in their positions of their generation, and it frankly astounds me every time I look down their roster at the calibre of players they have at their disposal. Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal is a man who gets what he wants, and there is no doubt that he has assembled the most impressive, star-ridden and expensive side in Europe.
What makes this side even more dangerous is that you can’t even rely on the traditionally blasé French approach to the Heineken Cup – Boudjellal has asserted that he holds the tournament in even higher regard than the Top 14 where, traditionally, most French clubs focus their real efforts. And when you have that drive added to the quality they have laced throughout the team, you realise the scale of the task that Leinster face. The centres, Giteau and Bastareaud, combine brain and brawn beautifully, whilst the balance of the backrow – where they can pick from Steffon Armitage, Juan Smith, Lobbe, Masoe and Rossouw – invariably means they have graft, breakdown threat and ball-carrying ballast in abundance.
Are there any weaknesses at all? Well, as I alluded to in the above, this is the Rugby 08 dream team – a lot of these players were in their prime 3 or more years ago, and there are some aging legs out there. Leicester showed last year (until they picked up a yellow card) that if you play at a high tempo, Toulon look vulnerable, even at home. The trick is to keep that tempo up for 80 minutes. There’s also the news that both Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams will miss the match in the south of France through injury, so there could be a potential area to attack in the lineout, too.
Of course one man who would, without a doubt, appear in that Rugby 08 dream team who Toulon have not managed to get their paws on is Brian O’Driscoll. The Irish legend and the world’s most capped player will be a leading figure for his side as they look to conquer their opponents at a stadium that is rapidly earning itself “fortress” status. They may be heading there in more hope than expectation, but they are a side with a phenomenal European pedigree and have previous for upsetting the odds against the tournament’s biggest sides.
Coach Matt O’Connor has been boosted by a near-clean bill of health, which means players like Cian Healy, Brian O’Driscoll and Dave Kearney are all available to join Jamie Heaslip and co in the starting line-up, fresh from victory over the French international side in their triumphant Six Nations campaign. That will certainly provide the Irish outfit with belief – if they needed it in the first place – and they will know that they have their own veritable buffet of world-class players to choose from in the build up to this one.
But if Leinster are to be successful they need to be firing on all cylinders, and that means making sure that the pack front up physically and give Ian Madigan an armchair ride, allowing him to get them into the right areas. If they can do that and vary the point of attack in the backline, as they have done so well for so long, then they can get Bastaraud turning and the gaps might just open up. But if Toulon get their mitts on the ball, then it could very well turn into an arm wrestle, and there’ll only be one winner there…
Head to Head: Mathieu Bastareaud vs Brian O’Driscoll
In a rematch of the final Six Nations fixture, the big Bastareaud will be looking for revenge on two fronts. He will have been disappointed to end up on the losing side, sure, but it would have really rubbed it in to see his opposite number named Man of the Match despite getting the better of him for much of the game. Bastareaud may look like a space-hopper on legs but he is so key to Toulon’s game and the generation of front-foot ball that, if he is shut down, the French side lose a lot of their attacking platform. BOD has spent an entire career chopping down blokes that are bigger than him – can he muster up yet another colossal defensive performance?
Leinster will go there with bags of self belief, and rightly so. Toulon are not invincible – they sit 3rd in the Top 14 having lost 9 of their 23 matches and, although only one of those losses was at home, they have been turned over at the Felix Mayol this year…by the mighty Grenoble, in January, in a game which saw head coach Bernard Laporte given a 13 week touchline ban. The ex-French head coach is still absent. But even with all these positives and the talent of the Leinster side, I can’t see them overcoming the collective might of Toulon at their home ground. That blip against Grenoble aside, very few teams arrive at the Felix Mayol and even get a sniff of winning, and with the experience and power that oozes through this Toulon side, I think we’ll see them grind out a reasonable win. Toulon by 7.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images