The Irish Times
We’re genuinely not looking beyond this week. It’s cliched but that’s the reality
In their back-to-back December meetings with Clermont three seasons ago, Leinster went toe-to-toe in the first game away, losing 15-12 before, a week later, they were well beaten 28-21, rescuing another bonus point in almost the last play.
Following those games, which effectively cost Leinster qualification for the knock-out stages after winning the Heineken Cup in the previous two seasons, Joe Schmidt reflected that given Clermont’s resources, Leinster’s best chance had been in the first meeting.
Asked whether or not this logic might apply again, Leo Cullen laughed and said: “I don’t know. I’m not thinking a huge amount about next week. I’ll have a think about that on the way home. It’s a huge challenge for us this week and we’re looking forward to that. We’re genuinely not looking beyond this week. It’s very cliched but that’s the reality.”
And who could blame him? It’s daunting enough to think that Leinster have to beat the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game. It’s even more daunting to think that in order to stay afloat in this pool, Leinster almost certainly need to record a double over the three-in-a-row champions.
To put this into perspective, Toulon re-invested heavily over the summer after losing the trio of Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams from their tight five, although only Matt Stevens, Samu Manoa and Duane Vermeulen of their summer signings feature in tomorrow’s pack. Ma’a Nonu, probably the best centre in the world over the last four years or so, is playing.
As well as winning all 15 home games in the European Cup to date, Toulon have hit their straps in their last two games, backing up a historic bonus-point win away to Clermont by running up a half-century at home to Agen.
They have retained the core of the starting side from those two games, with French hooker Guilhem Guirado and Stevens restored to the frontrow, and while Argentinian captain Juan Fernández-Lobbe has been ruled out, his replacement is breakdown specialist Steffon Armitage. In the backs Bryan Habana is recalled for James O’Connor.
Leinster retain ten of their starting line-up from their semi-final clash in Marseilles last season, and it is worth recalling that they came within a whisker of winning that game through a 78th minute drop goal attempt by Jimmy Gopperth.
They dug out a performance that day, and with the personnel at their disposal, it would be no surprise if they do so again, allowing for big games from their big players, notably Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton, who showed signs of a return to his best over Ulster two weeks ago.
Not having played since then, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross have been restored to the frontrow. Admittedly, these were the starting props on the receiving end of a harrowing day in Bath when the scrum contributed to all but three of Bath’s 19-point haul.
Then again, Mike McCarthy wasn’t playing that day.
Josh van der Flier has provided some welcome freshness by earning his place on merit, Cullen reporting that the flanker made 20 tackles against Ulster despite Leinster having the majority of the possession. Van der Flier is about to come up against perhaps the most effective breakdown poacher in the European club game in Armitage.
It was also understandable that Rhys Ruddock yesterday mentioned Bastareaud in the same breath. Leinster struggled to build through the phases and create much in their two knock-out defeats to Toulon over the last two years.
With the forecast set fair, in temperatures of about 14 degrees, Leinster need to play adventurously, and keep the ball off the deck to reduce the influence of Armitage, Bastareaud et al by reverting to more of an offloading game.
That’s a tall ask on form, but if, as Gordon D’Arcy suggested during the week, they can stick with Toulon until the last 30 minutes, it could at least become very interesting.