Leinster's position in European elite on line in Marseille
Three-time champions must deliver to maintain place among blue-chip clubs
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
Last season, Leinster got a sense of their place in the new order of European rugby when they were swept into the Mediterranean by a Toulon side on their way to greatness.
The meeting of the two most recent winners of the Heineken Cup received top billing on quarter-final weekend, not least due to the retiring pair of legends, Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll, whose paths were crossing for the final time.
However, all of the sub-plots were washed away in a tsunami of raw power that left the Irish side in no doubt as to where they stood in the greater scheme of things and it wasn't at the top table.
Three weeks later, they watched Munster take on the same superstars in Marseille and land some punches before eventually succumbing. Just under a year on, Matt O'Connor and his men report for duty at Stade Velodrome tasked with the same job; halting the moneyed men of Toulon's march on history.
Last year, they did so from a position of relative strength and there was a reasonable expectation that they'd give it a go, but 12 months on their season is on the line and their coach is under huge pressure.
All year, the players have reiterated their support for O'Connor and lauded the Australian's game-plan; well now it is time for them to back those words up with a performance for the ages. Anything less will condemn them to a third year watching the final from a distance and, given they are unlikely to be seeded in next year's tournament, the road to the top is unlikely to get any easier.
There is comfort in the record books for the travelling contingent of around 3,000 to cling to in that no one has won three European titles in a row. Unfortunately for Leinster, no one has ever assembled a collection of world-renowned players like the reigning French and Heineken Cup champions either.
This week, Leinster's players and management have spoken of their belief that within them lies a performance for the ages, one good enough to dethrone Bernard Laporte's collection of stars.
They point to the three-time champions' record in this competition, the number of world-class Ireland players in their match-day 23 and the reasonable assertion that Toulon's performance at the Stade Felix Mayol last season was their best in recent seasons.
It's all valid and yet it is hard to tally this Leinster team with the one who claimed three titles in four years under Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt.
After a raft of retirements and departures, the focus of the Blues' strength has shifted from razor-sharp backline incision to a pack that can dominate set-piece and hold its own against most of what Europe can offer. The problem comes when you reach the elite stage of the competition and meet a side with such an array of backline options as Toulon.
Bernard Laporte's team can bludgeon you through their enormous forwards and their kindred spirit Mathieu Bastareaud, move you around with their outrageous offloading ability or scythe you open through a combination of Freddy Michalak, Matt Giteau, Delon Armitage and Bryan Habana.
They can control the tempo through their ability to go through phases thanks to their scrum-half Sebastian Tillous-Borde, put pressure on your set-piece through their all-international tight-five or dominate your ball on the deck with their groundhogs.
Much has been made of their apparent step back since last season, while there is a perceived weakness in their defensive system, but this is a collection of Test-match performers who know when they need to raise their game and tend to do so.
Last season, they became the first French team to complete the double and this year, despite talk of a decline, they are top of the Top 14 after 22 games. Their only European defeat this season came at Welford Road in a pool where they faced Leicester, Ulster and Scarlets and qualified with a week to spare having scored 19 tries in six games.
Compare that to Leinster who are currently fifth in the Guinness Pro12 and unlikely to make the play-offs, a team that barely emerged from a pool in which they were seeded.
A big win over an already-out Castres side at the RDS aside, they struggled for tries in Europe and the quarter-final win over Bath saw them rely entirely on the boot of Ian Madigan for the third time in seven games.
That seat-of-the pants encounter exposed flaws in O'Connor's defensive system that, if they have not been addressed, will be ruthlessly exploited by Giteau and friends. Given that the coach felt compelled to rest almost all of his front-line players for the intervening game against Dragons last Sunday, training ground adjustments will have to do.
It is not all doom and gloom for the last remaining Irish province whose pack will remember dominating the scrum at the Mayol. Steffon Armitage did significant damage at the breakdown last season and is fit enough only for a bench spot this time around, while Michalak is infamously flaky when pressure is applied.
Sean O'Brien's return and the emergence of Ben Te'o as an attacking threat is another plus for O'Connor whose game-plan relies on gainline busts from big carries and then quick ball, but Leinster's skill-set must improve if they are to take their chances.
All season, the coach has lamented his side's lack of accuracy and poor ball-focus and to have a chance at the Stade Velodrome then they must take care possession. That starts on set-piece, Munster showed that by chasing kick-offs hard through Simon Zebo you can force Toulon into errors, but also paid the price for their own bad execution when they failed to deal with a drop-out.
With conditions set to be slippy and rain forecast, the lineout will need to be on the money and, between them, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner have to out-think a defensive lineout that includes four viable receivers.
They will hope to disrupt Toulon ball by applying pressure to the excellent Guilhelm Guirado's throw, while at scrum-time their two banks of Ireland international front-rows will hope for plenty of reward from Wayne Barnes.
The referee will be a pivotal figure with Leinster hopeful his interpretations around the ruck will result in quicker ball for Isaac Boss to play with and the backline will hope to keep the sizeable men in the champions' pack moving around the pitch constantly, be it through the boot of Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan or the legs of Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney (right) in the wide-channels.
O'Brien, Jordi Murphy and captain Jamie Heaslip will have a major role to play in securing Leinster's ball, while the absence of Armitage should free the Tullow native for more ball-carrying than he might have expected.
The Tullow Tank never quite hit his Murrayfield levels in a tired-looking outing against Bath, but after a week's rest and more training he'll hope to show Mourad Boudjellal just what he missed out on. The fact the eccentric owner tried so hard to sign O'Brien and Heaslip should serve as a reminder to Leinster that they've a number of 'Galacticos' of their own.
And while some see their task in Marseille as a mission impossible, Heaslip was quick to emphasise that is not how he or any of the players view it.
"I don't play to come second," he explained this week. "There's 40-odd lads down there who have the same mentality, but result comes off the back of work, of doing your job and the team making the least possible amount of mistakes which is a knock-on from doing your job and being disciplined around that.
"They're kind of the things that I'd be focused on, it helps to take away from the pressure and lets you focus on one thing, one moment at a time and especially on an occasion like this, a semi-final with a packed house, a great occasion you don't want to be swept up in that.
"That's where experience kicks in, they have plenty of that as well with God knows how many international caps they have and the experience they have but those occasions are the days when you go back to what you know and goes back to what you practice day in, day out.
"There's no better occasion than facing the defending champions in their backyard."
But for all of Leinster's European experience, there are just too many question marks about the three-time champions ahead of the biggest game of an underwhelming season.
Whether Jimmy Gopperth can control a game of this magnitude for 80 minutes is the primary concern, while there are major question marks about Ian Madigan's defence in the No 12 channel alongside him.
Te'o has looked explosive, but managing Bastareaud is a different proposition than any he has faced in union and Giteau's bag of tricks will cause him all sorts of headaches.
If they are to pull off a famous result, then they will need a complete 80-minute performance. Discipline will be key, but Leinster will also need to punch holes in the champions' rearguard and score tries.
It will require a performance that has been far beyond their capabilities all season and it's unlikely to come together just when they need it.
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