Sparks to fly when giants go toe to toe
Welford Road will be a cauldron today, writes Eddie Butler
Even if Leicester and Toulouse were bottom of the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 respectively, a scenario admittedly about as likely as every scrum across the continent remaining upright and true this weekend, any meeting between the two would count as a clash of European heavyweights.
Leicester have been to five Heineken Cup finals, winning two, the back-to-back triumphs of 2001 and 2002; Toulouse have won more finals than any other side, four, and been runners-up twice. As it is, they both currently lie third in their domestic leagues and while this may be no more than an exercising of the right of giants to yawn until the table before them is fully laden with offerings, it may also suggest that these are not the best of times for the two clubs.
Above Toulouse in the Top 14 lie Toulon and Clermont, the one grabbing headlines for all their marquee signings and consistency, the other frightening rivals in all competitions with their combination of the clinical and the exuberant.
Above Leicester in the Premiership are Saracens and Harlequins: ditto the above. That is, others lead the way in the transfer market and search for the elusive cocktail of accuracy, speed and extravagance.
Both Leicester and Toulouse are too big to dare admit ever to finding themselves in a period of transition. You do not reinforce Mont Blanc; it is simply there, towering. But for the Toulousains, the Australian scrumhalf Luke Burgess is no Byron Kelleher, the slightly off-message but hugely influential All Black, who left them in 2011.
At Leicester, if the rumours in the French rugby press are true, then Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italy prop and darling of Welford Road, is on his way to Toulon. The deal – there is a year left on his contract – would help Richard Cockerill, the Tigers coach battling against the salary cap, no end.
Leicester would quite rightly say that Dan Cole has made the No 3 shirt his own. There is no doubt that Toulouse, even with the formidable weight of Romain Millo-Chluski and Patricio Albacete coming through from the second-row, will not push the Tigers around at the scrum. Cole, on the tighthead side, will be the target of much of this French-Argentinian thrust and will once again reveal why he is just about the most important player, bar none, in England.
The more the viewing world rages against the diabolical spectacle of the scrum as it has become, complete with collapses, resets, penalties and free-kicks for anything bar the universal crooked feed, the more it is important it is to have the upper hand there.
Cole is a treasure, a one-man resistance to the clear disparity in spending power between English and French clubs. But if he alone can withstand the drive of three or four opponents, at some stage the numbers may tell. Take the centre where the sensational 18-year-old, Gael Fickou, will miss the match with an injured ankle. It barely matters at Toulouse, where they still have Luke McAlister, Yann David, Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion at their disposal.
Mind you, Toulouse may well need each and every star from this well-stocked stable of centres to stop Manu Tuilagi. Inside him, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs play without hesitancy, not always the case when they play for England.
Leicester at their best, not bad for a place so far from the sea, establish a coastal environment – not as in pretty seaside rollers, but surging waves that batter defences. No 8 Thomas Waldrom, hooker Tom Youngs and Tuilagi may be the ball-carriers, but it is the work of players behind them, the ground-clearers, that makes Leicester on their day irresistible.
To play with this intensity requires minute co-ordination. If Julian Salvi can pinpoint the collision point created by Tuilagi beyond the advantage line, the wing-forward can be there first, the support wave behind the initial surge. If, on the other side, Yannick Nyanga or Thierry Dusautoir – another example of how Toulouse can stockpile players in one position – have to pause as they work out where the battering ram is going to strike, then the advantage of the attack is compounded.
No yawning, then, by either giant will do, no holding position behind the pace-setters will suffice. They say you should wrap up warm at Welford Road. Or you could just hold out your hands and feel the heat of a freezing field on fire.
Leicester v Toulouse,
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