Tony Ward: Toulon test not mission impossible for Leinster
Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30
So we're down to the last four in the Champions Cup and the signs are pointing to a repeat of the 2013 all-French final between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon.
With Clermont and Toulon on home soil against Saracens and Leinster respectively in the semi-finals, the two French giants are worthy favourites to advance to the grand finale in Twickenham.
It is a testimony to the consistency of Saracens, Clermont and Toulon that for the third year running these three clubs will be involved at the penultimate stage; for Clermont it will be a fourth successive semi-final as the quest for a first premier European trophy continues.
Of the four quarter-finals, Clermont disposal of runaway English Premiership leaders Northampton was far and away the most impressive performance. They didn't just beat them, they demolished a club with real title-winning aspirations themselves.
And while this has been something of a lean season for the provinces, this is the eighth year running there will be an Irish presence in the final four.
Not since 2007 when Munster and Leinster lost out to Llanelli and Wasps respectively on the road in the quarters has an Irish side failed to make it into the last four.
It is a record of which Irish rugby should be proud and while Leinster hardly looked likely title winners in Saturday's victory over Bath, I wouldn't dare dismiss the upcoming trek to Marseille as mission impossible.
They will travel as underdogs but Matt O'Connor and his management team have a fortnight to plan a way around the Toulon machine.
Against Bath, Leinster's attempts at attacking were poor by any standard, not least their own. They are no longer the force they were when they had Johnny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and Isa Nacewa in their pomp. That we have to accept.
However, what is fixable is the trait upon which Joe Schmidt established his reputation: precision in passing.
Against Bath, it all seemed so pointless. The criticism levelled at Munster in recent times about headless chicken stuff behind the scrum certainly applied to Leinster. The ball was given plenty of air through the hands but with little conviction in terms of beating or fixing defenders, thereby creating space for others.
Wasps, on limited opportunity against Toulon, showed what can be achieved when getting the bread and butter basics right.
What we witnessed at the Aviva was classic cup rugby, and had it been Munster winning through in Thomond in similar fashion we would be lauding their achievement.
That is part of the problem for Leinster - people expect them to always embrace an attacking style. They are victims in a sense of the majesty that was the O'Driscoll era.
But that was then, this is now, and while you could argue that a high-tempo, all-action attacking strategy is the best way to counter Toulon's power-driven game, there is enough might and ball-carrying ability in the Leinster squad to take on this treble-chasing, expensively-assembled team at their own game.
If it becomes loose and fractured then, through Steffon Armitage and Mathieu Bastareaud, Toulon will win the battle at the breakdown comfortably and with it the match. Armitage and Bastareaud are the consummate turnover experts in modern-day rugby, where their wide and stable body position is king.
The key is in not presenting that target, and with Sean O'Brien (extremely subdued against Bath) and Cian Healy back in situ alongside Sean Cronin and Jordi Murphy, Leinster possess the personnel to move the heavyweight Toulon pack - the likes of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha - beyond their comfort zone in which they operate so effectively.
However, Leinster will not be able to move the Toulon juggernaut from side to side if their back play is as ineffective as it was against Bath.
That is the big challenge for O'Connor: how to shift the point of attack in midfield between the ball-carrying strengths of Healy, Cronin, Murphy, O'Brien et al with quick ball presentation and purposeful running when the occasion demands.
Wasps' two well-taken but essentially simple tries proved that Toulon's defence is not impregnable. Yes, they came up short in the end and the better side unquestionably won, but there was enough to suggest that the semi-final will not be one-sided semi-final - provided Leinster get the basics of meaningful running and fixing right.
Before that, Leinster travel to Newport on Sunday, and while the Dragons are nowhere near the same level of opposition, it is an opportunity to put the platform in place while not revealing the entire box of tricks for the trip to France seven days later.
Rugby can be a simple game made complex through over-exaggeration and just trying too hard. That's how it seemed against Bath where the better side still won, but the one playing the more effective rugby on lesser rations could have stolen it.
And if there is one earnest wish over the next fortnight - and not just because of the World Cup year that's in it - it is that fans unite behind the Leinster cause.
This is Irish rugby against the French - or, more accurately, a World XV representing a French club. Leinster deserve our unqualified support. It might not be Galactico rugby but they are still keeping our game in the European shop window with the world watching.
What would the Welsh or Scots give to be similarly placed?
Pass master Stringer unites the nation
Leinster fans might not like hearing it, but the few moments of class in Saturday's exciting encounter were provided by Bath outside-half George Ford (a quality act in the making) and by full-back Anthony Watson on the counter.
But the moment when Lansdowne Road united and every spectator in the ground came together arrived in the 66th minute when Peter Stringer replaced Micky Young at the base of the Bath scrum
If only Munster could turn back the clock to 2011 and reverse their madcap decision that Stringer was past it.
And pass is the operative word. Never has a better passing scrum-half graced Irish rugby.
That wrist-driven sweep off either side invites those so privileged to play outside him to run on to the ball, and that for any out-half worth his salt is rugby utopia.
Now 37, his freshness and durability proves that there is still room in this modern game of monsters for the little man.
As witnessed on Saturday, the nation loves him - and rightly so.