'Play the team, not the team-sheet'
Facing Toulon is daunting, but those who know them reckon Leinster will have opportunities
Published 16/04/2015 | 02:30
Nothing focuses the mind like meeting your maker and on Sunday in Marseille, Leinster face European rugby's grim reaper.
Toulon have cut a swathe across the continent over the last three seasons, a collection of hardened professionals enjoying simultaneous Indian summers on the Cote d'Azur, hard to like and even harder to play against.
The Blues know all about the French champions' awesome power after last year's humbling at the Stade Felix Mayol, yet there is a steely resolve at UCD this week that the three-time winners can dethrone the men who took their crown.
Bernard Laporte's team have not suffered a knockout defeat in the competition since 2012, but those who have studied them closely and played against them believe that the three-in-a-row-chasing side have hidden vulnerabilities.
The problem is finding them among the strengths, but Matt O'Connor and his management team have been busy studying last year's game and Toulon's recent form for chinks of light.
Ulster know all about the French side's power, pace and brilliant breakdown ability having faced them twice in the pool stages this season, and captain Rory Best sees chances for his provincial rivals.
"The big thing is that Leinster start well, that they play the team and not the names on the teamsheet. If they do that, then I think Leinster have a very good opportunity," the hooker said yesterday.
"If they let Toulon start well and get ahead, concede too many penalties in their own half with Leigh Halfpenny or another quality kicker they'll rack up three, six, nine points but if Leinster can start well and get that three, six, nine, get ahead. . .
"The big thing about having a team of stars is that when they get ahead and they're let play they're unbelievable, but when you put a bit of pressure on them and they become a bit fractured, when you're asking a bit of their team unity. . . that's what Leinster can do."
Last year's game is a reference point for the Blues as they plot their assault and according to out-half Jimmy Gopperth they have learnt plenty of lessons.
"You've got to make your first-up tackles, because they are big, big men," he said. "They are going to run at you and if you don't make your first-up shots they are going to get in behind you and get momentum. Then the likes of (Matt) Giteau, (Drew) Mitchell, (Mathieu) Bastareaud will just keep coming. So, defence is going to be a massive key for us.
"Then when we've got the ball we've got to respect it and look after it. Try and move them around the pitch because they are a big unit. If we do those two things well then we are going to give ourselves an opportunity."
If Leinster get their defence right, then they believe they can create chances against an ageing Toulon team whose durability has been questioned. Ulster coach Neil Doak believes that the champions can be exploited.
"We created a few issues for Toulon and we missed a little bit of detail," he said of their visit to the Mayol which ended in heavy defeat. "If we had our detail sorted out, we actually could have been 24 points up in the first-half against them but any lapses in concentration. . . they're a quality side who have boys who can run in tries from anywhere.
"You'll target certain areas and we got good change out of it but we weren't able to capitalise on mini-linebreaks and things like that.
"When you're playing quality sides you need a lot of things to go with you, refereeing decisions and the bounce of a ball going your way, getting a bit of a buffer and getting that lead. Forcing Toulon into scenarios they maybe haven't been in, where they're chasing that lead. . .
"Leinster, we know from playing them numerous times, can score tries and points quickly. If they get on a bit of a run, get those opportunities and take them then it will be a great game."
Gopperth agrees that there will be chances.
"We have got to play what we see and play the opportunity - we know that they do leak a few tries, we know there's opportunities there and we know we've got to take them," he said.
"We'll do our homework on them and see where the opportunities are, so then it's up to us to exploit those and make those opportunities count."
The key, Doak says, is to disrupt Toulon's flow and force them into a game they don't want to play.
"If they're on song, they're a hard team to beat,. You just have to disrupt them and not give them quality ball, just harass them," he said. "Nobody likes pressure in your face, no matter how good a player you are if you're harassed and are continually put under pressure then your skill-sets break down and teams can capitalise."
The problem is, in Steffon Armitage, the French side have one of the best groundhogs in the business and counter-acting the erstwhile England international on the deck is a challenge in itself.
"Even though we had guys quite close to the breakdown looking to clean out last season, if there was a metre space between you and the breakdown then he's in there before you," Sean Cronin recalled of the back-row's impact last season.
"We have come up with a few ideas to try and negate their tackler plus the guy who attacks the breakdown, which they do quite successfully."
If Toulon manage to slow down the Leinster ball, then the visitors will struggle to score tries.
"People know we like to play with fast ball and every opportunity we get to attack, teams just seem to be killing the ball straight away to not let us play," Gopperth said.
"They'd rather give away three points than let us score tries. It was pretty obvious against Bath that every time we got in a very good attacking position they'd just give away three points. That won us the game.
"It is frustrating, but we can't give them momentum and have to take it on ourselves, making sure that when we carry we fight a little bit harder and get our cleaners in a bit quicker so they can't infringe and we can create some opportunities to score tries.
"There was a lot of opportunities we left out there last season. We didn't play well and yet 60-odd minutes in we were still in touch with them.
"So, we are going to take a lot of lessons out of that game and a lot of positives but we are going down to their patch and they are probably the best team in the world at the moment with all the superstars.
"It's going to be a hell of a task but we will give it every shot."
Last season, Munster did a far better job of countering Toulon in the semi-final than Leinster had in the quarter.
"A team like Leinster at the stage they're at have enough to beat Toulon over there in a neutral venue on a lovely sunny day," their coach Anthony Foley said yesterday.
Hope comes from the strangest of sources.