What a game this could be. The Tigers, two time Heineken Cup winners and three time beaten finalists, travel to the south of France to play the expensively assembled galacticos of world rugby, Toulon. Both sides topped their group but neither looked completely comfortable in doing so. Toulon were comprehensively beaten by Montpellier, while the Tigers have already lost in France this season, to Toulouse, and also drew at the Ospreys. The visitors do bring some good form into the game, however, having trounced Midlands rivals the Saints 36-8 at Franklin’s Gardens last weekend – they have won their last three games, as well. Toulon also come into this game on the back of an impressive win, having beaten Stade Français 43-11 in Paris last weekend.
Perusing the Toulon teamsheet is not a task Tigers fans will want to be undertaking too often prior to this game. Their line-up oozes quality, to the extent that the likes of Joe Van Niekerk, Gethin Jenkins, Jocelina Suta and Maxime Mermoz find themselves on the bench. Looking at the starting team, it is impossible to pick a weakness. Andrew Sheridan and Carl Heyman are pillars of power who bring vast amounts of experience; in the engine room Bakkies Botha’s brute aggression compliments Nick Kennedy’s line-out prowess beautifully, while the back-row sees Argentina captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe team up with England outcast Steffon Armitage and bruising Kiwi Chris Masoe. In the backs Jonny Wilkinson’s steady hand will guide his team to the right areas of the pitch, not to mention punishing any Tigers infringements. Matt Giteau has the guile and awareness to put the giant Mathieu Bastareaud where he needs to be, and outside him the diminutive Alexis Palisson has the pace and feet to create space where there is none.
Then there is the Stade Mayol factor. It is a claustrophobic, cauldron-like stadium, where the fans will back their team to the ends of the earth and beyond. They have lost just once there this season, to Racing Metro, so while the Tigers will know it is possible, they will also know they have to be at their absolute best.
Player to watch – Andrew Sheridan
Sheridan has been reborn in the south of France. After making a name for himself dominating Australian packs in various forms, he went off the boil somewhat. Much like the path trodden by Jonny Wilkinson before him, a move to France and his removal from the international reckoning has seem him blossom once again. Ironically, it could lead to a Lions call if Gatland decides his form warrants it – the Toulon coaches certainly seem to rate him higher than one of the frontrunners for the shirt, Gethin Jenkins, who starts again on the bench this weekend. A fierce scrummager and destructive ball carrier, Sheridan will be another fierce test of Dan Cole’s credentials.
It’s been a largely typical campaign for the Tigers so far. Plodding along without ever really blowing anyone away (a couple of notable exceptions aside), they are heading into the business end of the season in relatively good shape. The most encouraging thing for Tigers fans is that they come into this game on the back of their best performance this season by a long chalk. Their demolition of the Saints had everything – pace, power and precision. It was a tough group that they climbed out of, sneaking by Toulouse 9-5 in the final pool game to secure a quarter final spot. Had the Toulouse kickers been even slightly on form that day, we might have been looking at a second all-French affair here. Still, the Tigers will relish being the underdogs, and will, behind close doors, back themselves to come away with a win.
They have named an unchanged line-up for the third weekend in a row. Toby Flood captains the side and looks back to his best having rediscovered his confidence, while in the forwards Tom Croft – looking back to his best – and Ed Slater are in great form with both ball in hand and in defence. In Marcos Ayerza they have one of the most intelligent, and best ball-playing props in the world.
Player to watch – Manu Tuilagi
Everyone knows Tuilagi’s strengths, and everyone knows Tuilagi’s weaknesses – or so we thought. Last weekend we saw the most rounded performance he has probably ever put in. His usual power was there in all its glory as he crashed over for two tries (the second of which few other players would have scored), but there was so much more that impressed about his game. He was composed in defence, tenacious enough at the breakdown to nick a couple of turnovers, and aware enough to offload out of the tackle. There was even a pass at one point! His match-up this weekend against Bastareaud is round two of a fight that never really got going in the Six Nations, and whoever succeeds in getting his team on the front foot more often could be crucial to the outcome.
This is where bonus points and missed opportunities in the pool stages come back to haunt sides. Had the Tigers not let a win in Swansea against the Ospreys slip away in the final minute, they may have been at home. In that situation, with Toulon not great on the road and Welford Road in play, the Tigers would have to be favourites. As it is, they have to come to Stade Mayol, as intimidating a ground as exists. If they play as well as they did last weekend they stand a great chance of upsetting the odds. If they play even slightly below that level, however, against a star-studded Toulon line-up cheered on by their baying fans, it could be a step too far. What a cracking game is in store, though. Toulon by 3.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43