If Leinster use all their guile then Toulon are beatable, insists Mike Prendergast
Grenoble coach backs Leinster to cause a shock - but only if they perform to their best
Published 14/04/2015 | 02:30
Few give Leinster much chance of dethroning the Champions Cup kings Toulon this weekend.
Logic screams the inevitability of defeat. All that Leinster supporters crave is their heroes cling to an ageless sporting maxim, that they at least be brave in the attempt, even if defeat may seem predictable to most neutral observers.
The conservative mindset - that Leinster tend to concede - undid them against the same opponents in last year's quarter-final exit, and that almost consumed them against Bath in this year's last-eight tie, must be eradicated.
There is another way. And, although Grenoble faltered last weekend against the awesome champions, two successes in recent seasons against the mighty men from the Med can serve as a template.
Indeed, if Leinster were offered the certainty of scoring four tries against Toulon, as Grenoble did in their Top 14 game last weekend, they would gleefully accept such a scenario.
And, while Mike Prendergast - the team's backs coach who did much to design his side's enigmatic strategy - ultimately saw his team lose, he is convinced Leinster can thrive by matching his side's intention to deploy guile as a prime weapon.
"The way we looked at the game was that our approach had to be focused on holding on to the ball," says the former Munster man, whose side outscored Toulon by four tries to two but were undone by indiscipline, allowing their visitors' steady accumulation of three-pointers - eight in all - to ease them to victory.
"It's all about building phases. Now it's easy enough to say that but doing it against such a big, strong physical team is something else. We knew that if we held on to the ball, went through phases, potentially opportunities would arise. And they did. We scored four tries, three of them after ten or more phases.
"We just felt if we got into a multi-phased game, held the ball and move their ageing pack around, we could pose a threat. Once you get into six or seven phases, they get quite narrow in defence and there is that space on the outside. And that's where we profited.
"It's the only way to beat them really. If you try to go toe to toe with them, try to slow them down, that's where they'll hammer you. It's hard to generate good attack from slow ball.
"You need tempo, not going side to side, but winning the race around the corner, playing wider off the nine. Try to run at players other than the front five, look for shoulders. They can be narrow, they defend inside out so it's hard to break through them."
That intent must be there from the opening whistle; Leinster cannot afford to lie deep as they have done too often this season. Patient phased play, not always a Leinster strength either this term, and selection at scrum-half are key.
"Obviously the challenge is to win the collisions," adds Prendergast. "Now that's not always going to materialise so you need to be careful not to panic when you lose a gain-line. Once we could hold onto the ball, we knew we could re-generate. So when you lose a collision, the next carry might give you a gain-line and then play quicker off that. So you need tempo.
"In that mindset, who Matt O'Connor picks at nine is a huge call. Eoin Reddan plays with that tempo, he gets in quickly and recycles that ball. So does he start with him or bring him on when there are tired bodies late on? It's one of the big calls he must make."
Prendergast also points to the set-piece as a potential Toulon weakness that Leinster could exploit; despite their exalted status, Bernard Laporte's side possess the third weakest lineout in the Top 14 while their formidable scrum has also struggled of late.
Possession is key and cherishing that possession; Toulon remain king of the turnovers.
"It's all about accuracy in attack and defence," says Prendergast. "Because where they're really ruthless is on turnover ball, they're so good on the ground and with any loose ball. Steffon Armitage is strong there but he may be out now.
"Then they hit you out wide with Mitchell, Habana, Giteau and Armitage. They hurt us once off that. They seem to go into another gear.
"But when they get in their phased play, they seem happy just to eke penalties out. Unfortunately, our discipline wasn't up to scratch. That's another thing Leinster need to watch out for.
"They've an array of kicking options even with Leigh Halfpenny out. Freddy Michalak kicked 22 points in the quarter-final, Delon Armitage boomed two from his own half, Matt Giteau can kick."
Despite Leinster's appalling Pro12 campaign, their European nous and big-game players offer Prendergast hope.
"The loss to Dragons didn't help them but this is a Champions Cup semi-final, they'll have their internationals back and they will have the motivation from the quarter-final defeat last season," he adds.
"I just have a feeling they've a big performance to come and I wouldn't be surprised if it came next Sunday. It will be difficult and they'll need all their physicality.
"But with Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien back in there, they're the kind of guys they'll look to win collisions and win some space. Then the rest of the team has to respect the ball, create those opportunities and then be accurate.
"Leinster are hurting more than anything. They're due a big one after all the criticism they've been getting for the last couple of weeks. It will galvanise them and drive them on."