George Hook: Toulon are not invincible but they are too good for underperforming Leinster
Blues face Champions Cup agony
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
Mediocrity is the opiate of a champion. In professional sport, where the continuous quest for supremacy dominates everyday thinking, a prolonged dip in standard can be fatal.
Success is built on a platform of hard graft, mental fortitude and repetition of high standards.
Champions are made on a journey of exceptional performances and while peaks and troughs are inevitable with physical conditioning, winning is a habit and there is no substitute for it.
To buy into the potential for a Leinster victory tomorrow, we would have to assume that the Irish province have the self-belief to topple the two-time champions in their home country.
Yet little in Leinster's performances over the last six months would suggest they are capable of putting together 80 minutes of the required standard to win the game.
Leinster's most recent form makes for particularly grim analysis. That they failed to account for the Dragons in Newport last Sunday, in what was in essence a must-win league game, is worrying.
The truth is that Leinster have failed to fire for a long time.
The European quarter-final win against Bath was set around a game-plan that relied on favourable refereeing decisions. Jérôme Garces duly played his part that day and Ian Madigan's right boot did the rest.
Defensively Leinster were weak and in attack they offered next to nothing.
Before kick-off in Rodney Parade last Sunday, assistant coach Leo Cullen suggested that every one of Leinster's remaining Pro12 games was like a cup final.
But rather than play for their lives and prolong their hopes of making the play-offs, Leinster coughed up a 13-point lead and surrendered a league double to the Welsh region for the first time in their history.
Cullen's pre-match words rang hollow in the immediate aftermath of that defeat.
Today, in similar circumstances but against far superior opposition, pessimism dominates the outlook.
Few Leinster fans will need reminding that Toulon are back-to-back European champions with a proven track record in the fundamentals of winning.
Even with the retirement of Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau's recent run of injuries, Toulon still have the strength and depth to be able to dispose of whatever opposition stands in their way.
Ulster could not cope with the sheer size and power of their pack in the pool stages at Ravenhill and while Leinster appear more adequately equipped to handle Toulon's threat up front, it will take a Herculean effort just to contain the likes of Steffon Armitage, Chris Masoe, Bakkies Botha and Mamuka Gorgodze.
Too many missed tackles against Bath in the quarter final allowed visiting out-half George Ford the opportunity to dictate the game. A repeat of that type of loose, slack defending against Toulon will be ruthlessly punished.
Freddie Michalak at fly-half craves time and space on the ball to show off his skills, so if Leinster sit back and allow him the freedom to dictate the game he will have a field day.
Michalak is notoriously flighty if things don't go his way, though. Leinster must shut him down and make his afternoon as uncomfortable as possible.
Mathieu Bastareaud and the in-form Maxime Mermoz will test Ian Madigan and Ben Te'o's fragile centre partnership to the limit.
Equally, an inaccurate kicking game to the Toulon back three will gift Delon Armitage and Bryan Habana the chance to counter-attack. Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth will be relied upon to find space with kicks out of hand.
Toulon are not invincible. Toulouse's stunning comeback at the Stade Mayol in the Top 14 recently proved that Bernard Laporte's side can be vulnerable to complacency. But they are also seasoned winners with enough experience and quality to take Leinster apart.
Leinster under Joe Schmidt were ruthless and hungry for success.
The same cannot be said for the Irish province under the current head coach.
Last weekend's loss in Newport means that defeat tomorrow afternoon will effectively end their season.
On paper, Leinster have the personnel to upset Toulon, but scholars of the formbook would not predict an away victory.
Champions are made on a foundation of high standards and a proven appetite for victory.
Unfortunately for Leinster, the result tomorrow afternoon is already cast in stone.