Leinster troops digging in for ultimate trench warfare
Leinster will be the underdogs against Toulouse and they will like it that way, says Brendan Fanning
It was 2003 and still the early days of the Heineken Cup as a stand-alone affair, where its organisers had taken a leap of faith and nailed down where the final would be played before they had nailed down who would actually play in it. And they needed some local involvement to give the thing a kick-start. Some reassurance if you like.
With the way the draw had panned out, giving Leinster a home run from the quarters to the final, that reassurance was at hand. Then they went and lost to Perpignan in the semi-final. Oh dear.
Everyone was shell-shocked afterwards. Not so distraught however that we couldn't mine some black humour from the situation. On the basis that one man's catastrophe is another man's opportunity -- and how we have seen that reinforced over the last eight days -- the prospect of a junket to the South of France presented itself. Perpignan versus Toulouse in a Lansdowne Road final? Now there was a gig that needed selling.
Fly us south, we told ERC's wee man with a big problem. Let us turn left when we walk in the door of the plane. Feed us and water us and pamper us and we'll apply ourselves to writing up this game as a must-see event. Whisk us over there for a few days and we'll magic it into a confrontation so special that all of Dublin will be queuing down the Shelbourne Road to get into the ground.
Maybe behind closed doors ERC simply wrote it off. Somehow they ignored our selfless gesture to jollify what was a funeral where you wouldn't even know who had died. We were grounded. And on the day of the burial, a crowd recorded officially -- we reckoned very generously -- at 28,600 turned up for a game where the only shred of local interest was the presence of Trevor Brennan.
Two years later, it happened again. Different cemetery, but same broad family. This time it was Stade Francais and Toulouse in Edinburgh, and even though the game went to extra-time, the most exciting point of the day was the sight of Toulouse coach Guy Noves being strong-armed by the Lothian and Borders police. They thought he was a punter trying to break the ring of steel they had placed around the pitch to hold back the wildly excited hordes of fans who were from neither Paris nor Toulouse.
As it happened, there were quite a few of them in attendance, identifiable by their club shirts, representing those who had been knocked out earlier in the competition. Their presence in the 51,000 crowd were the first shoots of a tree strong enough to stand tall in any wind. Five years on, we are faced again with what, on the face of it, is a forbidding prospect: the only thing worse than two French teams in Dublin is two Irish teams in Paris.
In fact it's not such a turn-off at all. Selling Cardiff to Irish and French teams in 2006 and 2008, and selling Edinburgh to Irish and English clubs in 2009, further made the case for the Heineken Cup final being an event in itself, regardless of the cast. This is good news for referees Nigel Owens (in Toulouse) and Dave Pearson (San Sebastian) who otherwise would find themselves under inordinate pressure to pick the right winner. Already over 50,000 tickets have been sold for Paris at the end of May. And that's before the respective finalists get their allocations. All we need now is for Leinster to get their spoke in first.
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The most convenient reference point for Saturday in Le Stadium is another Saturday in the same stadium in 2006. One of the landmark moments of the Irish rugby revival was when word spread from the car park at the back of the west stand in Lansdowne Road, where the Toulouse versus Leinster game was being screened from France: if half an hour later Munster could overcome Perpignan, we would be looking at an All-Ireland semi-final. By the time kick-off came round, the level of expectation was palpable. And when Munster delivered, it sparked one of the most frenetic preambles in Irish sporting history.
Probably the only relevance of that day now however is that Toulouse are still a bit sore that it happened. They have beaten Leinster since then -- giving them a good seeing-to in the second half of the pool game in Stade Ernest Wallon in November 2007 -- and managed to lose to them in the return leg.
But Saturday is the first time both teams will be back in Le Stadium, a terrific venue despite its modest capacity of circa 37,000 -- and certainly the French feel there is a score to be settled. How they go about it will be intriguing.
Thursday morning, 9 o'clock, Leinster's office. Outside the sun is showing itself and warming up Donnybrook village. Inside, however, Kurt McQuilkin is muffled up like it's mid-winter.
In fairness, he was very late to bed after the previous night's game in Galway. The new motorway between east and west has taken an age off the journey, but for the Leinster squad it was a long haul back.
"It gives us another good kick up the hole," he says bluntly, when asked if the result had a bearing on next Saturday. "If you remember last year, Connacht turned us over down there 19-18 before a European game and that certainly focused the mind. It's hurt our pride. It certainly made us -- not that we didn't go in with what we thought was focus -- but Connacht wanted it more than us and they showed that on the night. It put us in shape where if we do that in Europe we'll absolutely get done like the proverbial dinner."
Hmm . . . now how would that be? Overcooked and inedible we reckon. Burnt to a crisp. Into the bin. And regardless of how Leinster fare in the Magners this season, McQuilkin would love to go back to New Zealand in July with another European success as a sign-off.
He has been very good for Leinster, this centre turned defence strategist. Good as a player and now good as a coach. McQuilkin never reckoned Leinster would be a pensionable job. He will head back to beautiful Taupo, on New Zealand's north island, happy that he has made a contribution here, but longing still for the involvement. You can see from his run-on parts as water-boy/communicator of messages, that he's itching still to actually play the game.
"I actually quite enjoy it down there with regards to the heat of the battle and it's good to hear what the chat going is and all sorts of things," he says. "From that point of view, it's really good. Sometimes you wish you weren't there. When you're not having a good day at the office, it's pretty intense. I guess from my point of view it gives me that foot in the door with regards to feeling part of it. It gets me going, gets the juices flowing."
Over the next week he will go through the Toulouse tapes again to see if he's missed anything but already they have a clear plan about how they want to defend.
You would imagine it will involve them trying to blitz the French when they can, for if you give them time and space they can shred you. The scary part is that if Leinster get it wrong it will likely cost them points every time. High-risk stuff then.
"And that's where it's probably good to have that fear factor in your defensive line, knowing that if you don't do your job, if you don't get the roles and responsibilities right, you're going to get opened," he says. "And it's always good to have that edge -- that fear and that bit of bejesus. It's a big factor."
As for when Toulouse have the ball, privately you imagine he hopes they will attack as Clermont did, around the fringe of ruck and maul. Leinster's passive defence in this area was food and drink to Clermont and it will be hard for Guy Noves not to start at that point against the champions, using his scrum-half Byron Kelleher (pictured, left) to lead the charge.
"I know I would," McQuilkin says. "Definitely. They would have had a look at our last few matches and they'll be picking to have a go at us round that edge and looking to make yards there. He (Kelleher) will be looking to bring the big boys in and around there and looking to use decoys also and then out the back to Skrela and Jauzion -- who's a pretty big playmaker for them."
Looking after Kelleher will be high on McQuilkin's hit list this week. Although not the most cerebral scrum-half on the planet, he is muscular and athletic and loves a scrap. And man will it be heavy going. Likely to be played out under a hot sun and on a firm track, still there will be elements of trench warfare in this confrontation. It will be massive. The sort of game that has made this competition what it is. But when the hits are at their fiercest and Leinster players are queuing up to do their duty, they need to bear in mind the extra threat carried by Toulouse. It has left an impression on Gordon D'Arcy.
"I think you only have to look at Trevor Brennan," he says. "I'd say this to his face and probably run away then but it's true -- Trevor would never have been classed as a handling forward when he was playing in Ireland but however many seasons he played in France turned him into someone who would offload the ball instead of always running straight into a tackle.
"I remember him coming to an Ireland training session and going to tackle him, waiting for him to come barrelling into me and he actually turned and offloaded. Whoever took the pass flew by me as I stood there and went, 'Oh Christ!' If you're defending against an offloading team, the important guy is not so much the man making the tackle, it's the defenders either side. You can only mark your man but the defender each side has to be watching out for runners coming ready to take the offload.
"They become the crucial players because if they switch off, somebody comes out of the blindside and hits their line. Especially against these guys because they play so flat at the gain line, if you're not doing your job and somebody gets the run through it's very hard to recover from it. We have a very good defence and a very good scramble and a very good work ethic. That's something that's ingrained in this team -- everybody wants to work for each other and that comes out in defence.
"In any competition, if you aspire to win it, it's a knock-out tournament for the last few games. Once we lost to London Irish, it became a knock-out tournament for us. So you've got to get better with every game and the percentages have got to go up with every game as the tournament goes on."
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There is precious little in common between the Leinster of 2003 and the Leinster of 2010, notwithstanding the fact that five players are still around, and three of them -- D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen -- hope to start on Saturday. Back then the tournament was still finding its feet, and Leinster were still at walking pace compared to Munster's run. They have caught up now.
The recent form guide between the two points to Leinster setting the pace, but this is the type of fixture that Munster have specialised in over the years. You won't get many down south prepared to back the champions to come first in this race. And Leinster will like it that way. A Paris final with them in it will be a special occasion, whoever they're up against.