Time for Blues to show their stars
With 20 Ireland internationals in their match-day 23, Leinster must shake off their World Cup hangover and give the performance in Toulon that would lift their season
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
For the legion of 12-pubs merchants and party-goers, hangovers are a necessary evil at this time of year, and the Irish rugby guide to dealing with them is unlikely to be a best-seller in the book shops.
Eight weeks on from the defeat to Argentina, the fear refuses to leave. Doom, gloom, defeat, injury and contract wranglings dominate the landscape as the fog refuses to lift.
Tomorrow, Leinster have a choice to make. They can continue to lick their wounds or they can fight for their European lives, for their proud tradition and for their captain-turned-coach for whom they have failed to perform since he took over.
In champions Toulon, they face a familiar collection of superstars bolstered by new faces in Ma'a Nonu, Samu Manoa and Duane Vermeulen.
Yet a look through the Leinster team-sheet shows that the side that lost to Wasps and Bath to put themselves in a perilous position is packed with international talent of its own.
Cullen has named 20 Ireland internationals in his match-day squad, plus Isa Nacewa and Ben Te'o, who don't dilute the quality of player in the side. Josh van der Flier is the only uncapped Irish player in the team and he has been their form man this year, while of the replacements only Tom Denton has never played international rugby.
Twelve of the starting XV have contributed to at least one of the three Heineken Cup wins represented by the three stars on the shirt they'll don in the south of France tomorrow, and 10 of the 15 started the semi-final extra-time defeat to Toulon seven months ago.
Yet the bookies are offering the three-time champions a 15-point head start. While some of their former players made a case for them winning during the week, they struggled to convince.
There was a time when 7/1 would be considered generous for a Leinster side wherever they were playing, but you'll struggle to find anyone who will be having a nibble before this weekend.
All of this should sting the players who will fly from Dublin to Toulon this morning.
They are proud bunch, with a history of winning big games and of performing when it's needed, yet in the last 18 months their reputation in blue has been thoroughly tarnished.
They were a stray drop-goal attempt away from beating tomorrow's opponents in the semi-final last season, but few were convinced by their route to the last four and their dreadful league performance was seen as a truer reflection of where they were at.
That cost Matt O'Connor his job, yet under Cullen the performances have yet to lift to an acceptable level. The defeat to Wasps was an all-time low, while the improvements against Bath were undermined in the scrum.
Those results leave them on the precipice of a pool exit and the prospect of a meaningless meeting with the same opponents next Saturday night at the Aviva Stadium where more than 42,000 people have shelled out their hard-earned cash to come and see them.
Only a win at the Stade Felix Mayol would keep their campaign alive.
"We'll see where we are on Sunday afternoon," Cullen said in typically understated fashion yesterday.
"It's a great challenge for fellas, they don't come much tougher but we want to be the best team in Europe so we want to pit ourselves against the best teams.
"For the last three years Toulon have been that team; the years previous to that we were pretty close to being there ourselves, so everybody has been working hard over the last couple of years to try and get back to that level."
While outside the camp there has been plenty of negativity, Cullen was positive about his side's chances yesterday.
"We went to Marseille last year and ran them pretty close," he said.
"You could look back at the game against Wasps and we lost 33-6, but Toulon lost by a similar margin. The teams are close in this group and Wasps have stolen a pretty significant march on everyone else but we just need to focus on what we can focus on now.
"You look at the match-ups and the quality players they have and we've got really good quality players there as well. I have a lot of faith in the squad, a lot of faith in the players that are there, so that gives me the confidence going into this game."
So, how do they go about causing a major upset?
The breakdown would appear to be the first port of call, with Bernard Laporte asking a lot of specialist Steffon Armitage, who won't have a huge amount of help on the deck.
The coach has named a collection of some of the best ball-carriers in the business in Manoa, Romain Taofifenua, Mamuka Gorgodze and Vermeulen, but with Matt Stevens in at prop it is not the most mobile pack ever picked.
If Toulon have the ball for long periods, then they will win the game. Johnny Sexton can expect heavy traffic coming down his channel, while those huge men's ability to win collisions with ball in hand creates headaches in the wide channels, where Delon Armitage, Bryan Habana, Nonu and Drew Mitchell will hope to be on the end of some of Matt Giteau's crisp passing.
Yet, the absence of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is a chink of light. The Argentinian is a key leader in that Toulon pack and an understated presence who helps knit the superstars around him together, while their front-row look short of class.
If Leinster can hang on to the ball and make life difficult for Toulon at the breakdown, then they will have a chance.
With an all-Ireland international tight-five, their set-piece can put pressure on the hosts while they have talent and go-forward ability in their backline.
Against Ulster, they created plenty of chances and showed signs that Sexton was beginning to find his feet. If he can find Te'o on the gainline, then the rugby league convert can cause damage, as he did last season.
The problem was then that it was too late when they began to take the game to the French galacticos.
The absence of Sean O'Brien - who is no closer to a return as he continues to struggle with his inner-ear problem - deprives them of one of their biggest ball-carriers, while Cian Healy needs to find form.
Rhys Ruddock will need to be at his physical best, while Devin Toner cannot be a passive presence in defence and must use his size to good effect.
If they can get over the gainline by using their footwork, it makes life far more difficult for Armitage, who will hunt for every ball and make life hell for them on the ground if they cannot negate him.
That will be Van der Flier's primary responsibility, but he'll need help from Jamie Heaslip in particular who will have a huge role to play if they are to succeed.
Yet, for all that Leinster are a strong team on paper, they have yet to fulfil that promise and the fear is that a bad start could expose some brittle confidence - and when Toulon get their tails up at home then anything is possible.
The fear for Leinster is that the locals will be throwing their newspapers in the air from early on, but as intimidating as the port venue is, there is a chance for the visitors to turn the tables if they can get the upper hand early on.
A good performance can lift Leinster's mood, a win would transform their season.
"It's a really tough challenge, it's a really exciting challenge and I have a lot of faith in the players we have here," Cullen said. "I'm expecting a huge performance from them because everybody is hurting from the first two rounds. We felt we didn't do ourselves justice really, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the guys in action."
Even if no-one outside the camp has faith, it's time Leinster showed their true colours and what those stars on their shirt stand for.
TOULON - D Armitage; B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M Giteau, E Escande; F Fresia, G Guirado, M Stevens; S Manoa, R Taofifenua; M Gorgodze, S Armitage, D Vermeulen. Reps: A Etrillard, X Chiocci, L Chilachava, J Smith, T Taylor, M Mermoz, A Meric, J Suta.
LEINSTER - R Kearney; F McFadden, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, T Denton, J Murphy, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Kearney.
Ref - N Owens (Wales)
Toulon v Leinster, live, Sky Sports, tomorrow, 3.15