LEINSTER WERE GIVEN the draw that nobody wanted in this Heineken Cup quarter-final weekend, but all the foreboding talk can soon stop. In just a few hours, they can go to work at what they do best.
There’s not much to be said about Toulon that has not already been illustrated – they’re good, extremely good.
The reigning European champions have a pack built to steamroll teams, with Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau asked to do little more than point the machine in the right direction and pick off points when they come. Who needs imagination when Plan A is so brilliant?
“They have got really skillful , hard, quality players who run hard, tackle hard, ruck hard,” says Jamie Heaslip before pin-pointing his own individual battle today.
“They have got people like [Steffon] Armitage who, once they are on the ball they are like a tick coming off it - no matter who they put out always blend well together, work quite well in their system.”
Munster, of course, have been down this road before. A day which left them downtrodden in Stade Mayol after Felipe Contepomi had put right some of the wrongs in his Leinster career while his opposite number Ronan O’Gara found himself ready to give up the game he loved three years early.
This is new territory for Leinster, however, and while Heaslip can hark back to wins over Toulouse – when he wasted his first class trip home by sleeping as the mile-high party raged – Clermont and Harlequins; the squad is picking up cautionary tales from wherever they can.
“Jonny [Sexton] has played down there. He says it’s pretty intense. They have a pretty raucous crowd.
“People were asking during the week about the difference about playing in the Aviva sold-out with Ireland and sold-out with Leinster - there’s a slight difference. When you go and play in Europe, it goes a little bit more tribal. You’re in their back yard, they are quite proud of their stadium in Toulon and we are going up against them. They are going to be pretty loud, although we have three or four thousand supporters going over, I’m pretty sure they are going to be spread out.”
But enough praise for the hosts, because if any team has got what it takes to dethrone the 2013 champions, it’s the champions of 2011 and 2012.
Matt O’Connor’s side have perhaps only once hit the heights we have come to expect of Leinster over the past four years, but the weaponry they house in the squad will not meekly stand by in deference to Bernard Laporte’s well remunerated men. Nor will they make the mistake of assuming playing for Toulon matters less to an Australian, Argentinian or Kiwi than playing for Leinster does for those wearing a harp today.
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“You have to ask [the Toulon] guys what their changing room is like,” Heaslip said without expression when asked to metaphorically kiss the badge.
“They have a lot of guys not necessarily from Toulon, we have a couple of guys here who aren’t from Leinster even though we cover them in blue and teach them the ways.”
The Leinster way has become ‘one game at a time’ in recent years, but after Munster’s impressive victory over Toulouse at Thomond Park yesterday, somewhere in their mind O’Connor’s squad must be salivating at the prospect of meeting the old foe in the Aviva Stadium.
That, however, is getting just 80 minutes ahead of ourselves. Before that re-enters the brain the focus will be drawn to: whether Jimmy Gopperth was the right choice at out-half, will it be Jonny Wilkinson’s final European appearance or Brian O’Driscoll’s? And how will the veteran centre cope with Mathieu Bastareaud?
What it takes
Heaslip has made it clear that these are the games on which he thrives, big games that call upon every ounce of his energy. His hope is now, that the experience within the Leinster squad can be made to count when outweighed in south of France.
“You are worried about getting plays right, getting your job right and worrying about their threats and their opportunities and getting our shape right. More during the week and trying to set the tone for people, but at this stage with the games we have played in Europe already so far this year, this season, most guys know what it takes.”
“We have all that experience to call on. When it boils down to it, it’s about being the best we can be on the day.”
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip (capt.).
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Leo Cullen, Jordi Murphy, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner.
Toulon: Delon Armitage; Drew Mitchell, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, David Smith; Jonny Wilkinson (capt.), Sebastién Tillous-Borde; Xavier Chiocci, Craig Burden, Carl Hayman; Danie Rossouw, Jocelino Suta; Juan Smith, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage.
Replacements: Jean-Charles Orioli, Florian Fresia, Martin Castrogiovanni, Virgile Bruni, Bryan Habana, Maxime Mermoz, Michael Claassens, Konstantine Mikautadze.