Tony Ward: Leinster must adopt the great Bill Shankly mantra to beat Toulon
Blues need to dig deep in Champions Cup showdown
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
Sean Cronin got it half-right in midweek when he declared that tomorrow's Champions Cup semi-final clash in Marseille was "do or die for our season in Europe". We all know Bill Shankly's oft-repeated 'life or death' take on football, but Cronin's words fall short of the stark reality for Leinster.
This is the making or breaking of their entire season, not just in Europe. Win and it's all to play for still, lose and the competitive season is effectively over with the ramifications of that much more complex and far-reaching.
Whether or not we agree with the route Mick Dawson and the Leinster Professional Game Board (which includes the head coach and manager) may be forced to go is irrelevant but professional sport is results-driven and even a 'mere' semi-final might not prove sufficient to keep the Leinster wolves at bay.
But for now all eyes are on Marseille and the massive task in hand to avoid the worst-case scenario. Quite apart from the fact Toulon are chasing an unprecedented third European title on the bounce (although they did lose to Montpellier and Cardiff en route to both of those successes), right now they possess a strength in depth capable of competing with almost any combination in world rugby - and I don't make that assertion lightly.
When Toulon are in form and fully firing, Bernard Laporte's power-driven blueprint is difficult to counter, irrespective of the strategy.
The key pieces in Toulon's winning jigsaw come in the shape of Steffon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud and Leigh Halfpenny. Not for a minute are we discarding Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Mamuka Gorgodze, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Freddie Michalak, Drew Mitchell, Bryan Habana and a list of world-class stars which goes on and on.
However, take the turnover efficiency of Armitage and Bastareaud out of the equation and even the class act that is Halfpenny is rendered relatively redundant with goalkicking opportunities kept to a minimum, Leinster discipline accepted.
Between the two teams, they have won five of the last six titles including the last four in a row. Leinster came up short in 2013, and the three-time champions will be looking to ensure Toulon hit that brick wall too. Can they on current form do that? No. Can they do it if they produce the most substantial display of the season given the most complete selection available? The answer to that is yes.
Of course it is a mighty ask for Matt O'Connor's side and while we don't want to appear overly simplistic, the key is in how they handle possession. And handle is the operative word.
Of the many barbs aimed at O'Connor since taking the reins, the one undeniable fact is that the playing style has moved well away from the offloading game that served Leinster so well under Joe Schmidt. And let's be clear here: offloading is not about forcing the pass under pressure or in the tackle for the sake of it. On the contrary, it is a pre-ordained strategy geared at keeping the point of contact (tackle area) fluid and specifically in this instance at keeping Armitage (Steffon) and Bastareaud guessing.
In Cian Healy, Cronin, Sean O'Brien, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip and (when in the mood) Mike McCarthy too, O'Connor possesses five proven ball-carriers well capable of testing the tackle but protecting possession when releasing the ball to a different point and angle of attack.
The necessity is to move the Toulon pack out of its comfort zone and not, as some would flippantly suggest, by moving the juggernaut down the outside channels.
While simple in theory that gambit is nigh on impossible in practice and as we witnessed all too tellingly against Bath, Leinster currently lack the wherewithal to play that fluid game which once came so naturally and served them so well in exciting times past.
Only Treviso (4.8) have averaged fewer offloads than Leinster (5.3) this season, while Toulon (17.7) have averaged the most by a distance. So in order to survive Marseille and move on to Twickenham still intact, Leinster need to turn that overwhelming statistic on its head.
Can they do it? Yes - at full strength, they have the raw material. It won't be achieved by the willy-nilly, lateral passing or the headless-chicken stuff witnessed in the quarter-final; what is required is just subtle changes, one or two passes out or on the switch close to scrum, ruck and maul. The intention being to keep the two key Toulon ball-winners beyond arm's length when attacking the breakdown.
Beyond that again, we are assuming everything else to be in place as in tackling (loose of late), kicking out of hand (indiscriminate against Bath), scrum and lineout efficiency plus of course nailing every point-scoring opportunity (and Ian Madigan has been top-notch) that comes their way.
Even a team laden with class in abundance like Toulon will find rugby a much more difficult game to play without the ball and that must be the overriding objective tomorrow. If, and we accept it is a big if, Leinster can frustrate, then allied with self-discipline and no little clout themselves they have what it takes to do a most unexpected number on the champions.
Most pundits expect Toulon to prevail irrespective of how Leinster play or what strategy they embrace. Maybe it is the green blinkers but I don't see it that way. There is so much more than pride on the line; these 80 minutes or however long it takes could determine the entire make-up of Leinster Rugby and where it goes from here.
Maybe 'Shanks' was right after all. Come on the Boys in Blue!