'They have a chance if they survive the early onslaught'
For once, Leinster travel more in hope than expectation
Funny thing this past week but the preamble to today's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Stade Felix Mayol feels like a game Leinster might have played six years ago – before the breakthrough.
Normally you can put your finger easily enough on the confidence vein, which in the case of Ireland's most successful province throbs strongly enough. But not for today. The quiet assurance that preceded European wins in Clermont in 2012 and Harlequins in 2009 has gone underground, replaced by a foreboding we haven't seen since a point in between those two landmarks: the semi-final defeat on a grey, drizzly day in Toulouse in 2010.
If you recall that afternoon where the weather perfectly suited the mood – sodden and sullen – the Leinster pack were dragged around by their masters on a short lead. And when the walk was over they were put outside the back door. Where it was still raining.
Conditions in Toulon today will be sunny and warm, but the atmosphere will push the temperature up a few degrees. Those conditions recall previous European encounters in one of the most intimidating grounds on the circuit: the pool game against Munster in 2010; and the opening round with Glasgow this season.
In both games the home team opened like a tank disguised as a train, ran over the top of the opposition at high speed, and then refuelled. It is very hard to resist.
"Yeah, Toulon when they get into gear and they get that power game going – listen, they're as strong as anyone out there," says Leo Cullen, who will get to watch the first hour from the bench, unless pressed into service earlier through injury. "Look at the quality of players they have throughout their squad. When they get on that roll, it's quite hard to stop. Glasgow probably stood off them in that early bit. Then Toulon, once they got that bonus point, probably took their foot off the gas a little bit and let Glasgow in.
"Glasgow are very dangerous when they get that off-loading game going. It can be tough to play against. You saw a bit of both that day: the very good of Toulon and you saw that they do shut down a little bit and they let teams into the game. You saw it earlier on in the year, against Grenoble. They were chasing a bonus point and they ended up throwing an intercept and letting Grenoble score and ended up giving away the win and that's the only time they've been beaten at home this year."
The Munster game too saw the away team getting some traction late in the day, but so much damage had been done by that point that it didn't matter.
"They just suffocated us and the game was over before it had started really," recalls Ronan O'Gara. "Then you try and force it and that plays into their hands. The trick is to try and maintain a game, play score for score and if you're within a few points of them going into the last 20 minutes, then you've a great chance.
"I'd say Leinster have every chance if they survive the early onslaught. If they can hold their discipline through that period I think they'll win. Momentum is so important in that. They remind me of us (Munster) around 2006 when we were on a roll.
"If you go back to the Leinster-Munster game last weekend, in the first 20 minutes Munster looked like they were going to put a big score on them but in the space of 20 minutes in the second half Leinster went up a gear and pulled away. You can see they're really playing for each other.
"They'll have to deal with a different midfield against Toulon though and I think that will have a big bearing on the game. In Ireland, we place a lot of emphasis on work rate but over here they look to make a big impact – then rest and recover and go again. It's a different game and fellas like Bastareaud mightn't be that fit but he's effective at what he does."
It will be interesting to see how often he has to do it. We expect Irish teams now to be fitter than their French opponents. And in this case younger too. So will Leinster try and run them off their feet, for when Matt O'Connor's team play with tempo they usually get their rewards?
"Eh, I think that would be a bit disrespectful to say that (we're fitter than them) because they've got world-class athletes across their team," Cullen says. "They've got some big units all right so bigger guys can potentially tire – if you've got to tackle big guys for a long period of time as well it's going to tire you so it depends on how you manage the game.
"If you sit off and let their big guys run at us then it's going to be a pretty tough day, and they'll get stronger and stronger for that because it'll wear us down. If we go out and play and control the ball better then it's potentially us who'll tire them out, so it's about how the game is managed."
More than that, it's about how the players are managed off the field as well. Toulon's strength is evident. They have conceded only 21 tries in the Top 14 so far but between money bags Mourad Boudjellal and head coach Bernard Laporte there is an excitable gene at the heart of the mix.
It seems some of the foreigners in Toulon's multinational enterprise are not so enamoured of Laporte's rants. His assessment of referee Laurent Cardona – whom he described as being "incompetent" and "always hopeless" after their Top 14 defeat by Grenoble in January – which earned him 13-week match-day ban, was one thing.
Unloading on players in the dressing room seemingly is another, which has not impressed Bakkies Botha in particular.
The absence of the Springbok, along with second row partner Ali Williams, is good news for Leinster, and will take some of the edge off the Toulon pack. It won't however dilute the effectiveness of Stefon Armitage. The former England back-rower reminds you of Heinrich Broussow, the stumpy South African who
caused the Lions so much grief in 2009. He is a nightmare to shift when you're trying to recycle ball – which is a handy tool for a team that likes to counter-attack.
Leinster are the ones with the pedigree in this competition though. It's interesting that Toulon are a lot more upset at having failed to nail their own domestic title than they are delighted with last season's success in the Heineken Cup.
For Leinster on the other hand, it's all about chasing another title before it changes name and shape for next season. "The environment pushes people on a bit more now than it would have in the past because there is an expectation from the group – a certain standard has been set over the last few years and every time you go out and play, guys have to live up to that standard," says Cullen.
"And the competition: obviously, you have different levels of competition, there are guys coming through at different stages of their careers and everyone just wants to play in the team which has improved the standard of the team because you know if you don't play well you are not going to find it easy to get back in. It is pretty competitive. We are pushing each other on.
"We've been pretty lucky. All our S&C guys have managed us pretty well so by having so many fit guys on a regular basis makes a big difference. Obviously we had a few guys who were out last weekend but we have those guys back this weekend."
In Cullen's case, there won't be many more weekends like this, before moving onto the coaching staff next season. The Leinster he's a part of now is unrecognisable almost from the one he left in 2005 for two seasons in Leicester.
Leinster fans will hope that transformation might be enough to see them home this afternoon when they travel more in hope than confidence.
Toulon v Leinster,
Sky Sports 3, 6.30
Sunday Indo Sport