'Toulon can be just the start for me and the team'
Published 11/12/2015 | 02:30
Leinster are getting closer you know. A 15-point defeat two seasons ago. A five-point defeat last season - after extra-time. What odds of a Leinster win in the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday?
Keep the money in your back pocket, the bookies say. The smart money - and maybe even the not so smart money - says Toulon and the Champions Cup adventure over for Leinster before it has even begun. But the players believe. They have to.
"Of course we do," says Ireland hooker Richardt Strauss, "nobody goes along to make up the numbers and we are no different. And I think when you look back at the two games over the last two seasons there are reasons to be optimistic."
"In the quarter-final two years ago we were in it at half-time, but then the start of the second half we gave them some easy ins. Poor execution at set-piece. A line out gone wrong - I was as much at fault as anyone else - and suddenly we are chasing the game and have two tries conceded before we know it."
The 29-year-old is of course referring to Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen's last foray in European competition. Six all at half-time but an early try in the second half by Xavier Chiocci followed by a Drew Mitchell try off a stray lineout had Leinster chasing the game at 26-9.
But they had survived the early onslaught, had survived the intimidating atmosphere.
Then there was Marseille. Taking the then two-time reigning champions to extra-time - 100 minutes of pulsating knockout rugby. Anyone's game.
"Last season we had learned a lot from the loss the year before and again we managed the first half well, went in ahead at half-time and had luck been with us, we could have won that game. But it wasn't to be and they were worthy champions in the end."
Now Toulon are three-time champions. Yes they lost their opening game in Pool 5 to Wasps, conceding four tries, but since then they have two World Cup finalists back in harness in Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau and have Ma'a Nonu registered and good to go. Different gravy.
"We're under no illusions about the task that faces us. They've improved definitely since last season," says Strauss.
"But I also think that we are also in a good place - it might be a cliché but if we can control our own stuff and execute well and accurately there is no reason why we can't go there and get a result."
The 13-times capped Ireland hooker is also under no illusions as to what's at stake.
"We know that we have to perform to our optimum for the full 80 minutes," he says. "Any slip in standards or any let-up in concentration will be punished. If we don't perform, if we don't win, there is no next weekend. It's that simple.
"We are playing this weekend and every weekend after that to keep our interest in Europe alive. But that is a type of pressure that I think can be a positive."
There are other positives too. Strauss mentions the Stade Felix Mayol itself, a negative for most, a positive for him.
"It was brilliant the last time. As a rugby player, I think those occasions and that type of crowd should excite you," he says.
"I certainly love it. Okay, the crowd are not exactly shouting with you but 15 or 16 thousand fans - and a few Leinster fans there as well don't forget - roaring from the first minute until the last. As rugby players, you love seeing that passion that people have for the game that we all love."
Having returned from the World Cup - where he played against Romania, France and Argentina - Strauss has managed just half an hour away to Treviso and 26 minutes against Wasps. Most recently a concussion has hampered his game-time.
"When I came back from the World Cup, the energy about the place was infectious," he says.
"The new coaching set-up, Leo and John (Fogarty) with the forwards, the young lads and how they were now applying themselves and driving the whole thing. . . you just wanted to be part of it and play your way into contention. I've had to be patient."
The recent patience has been needed. A concussion suffered early in the game against Wasps meant he missed out on Bath and Ulster, and Storm Desmond ensured he would miss out on the trip to Glasgow even though he was fit.
"Glasgow was one of those things. What can you do? We all wanted that game against quality opposition ahead of Toulon. Players like myself and Rob (Kearney) were very keen to get some game-time having come back from injury so it was an opportunity lost," he says.
"I had to get through my return to play protocols and it is frustrating because I don't get obvious symptoms like other players do from concussion. I feel fine, but I am not passing the test so it's a measure of how careful the Leinster medics are.
"If you fail the stages, you go back to square one. So I was very eager to play having been cleared but look, what can you do?
"And look at it another way, we came through a match weekend ahead of a huge test against Toulon with no injuries to report! All we had were a few dodgy stomachs on the back of the flights!"
Last time out in Europe the pack shipped some criticism. Although Strauss was not involved that day, everyone took stock.
"It's very simple. We are very proud people, proud players and no front-row or pack would walk away from that game against Bath and be happy," he concedes.
"The game against Ulster was a step in the right direction but we are still hurting. That's not a bad thing though because as long as we remember the feeling after that game, it can drive us on because we can't look at our backs and expect miracles if we don't give them a platform. They need that on Sunday."
First Sunday, then the Aviva. But one at a time for Strauss.
"I just want to play for Leo and the new coaches a bit and hopefully the injuries are behind me and the game against Toulon this weekend can be just the start for me and for the team."