Sunday 18 February 2018

Bastareaud can wreak havoc as Leinster likely to fall short in heat of Toulon cauldron

Toulon's French centre Mathieu Bastareaud
Toulon's French centre Mathieu Bastareaud
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

NO extra hype required, this one stands on its own merits.

The Heineken Cup as we know it is set to come to an end this May, but there is life in the old dog yet and this weekend the most stellar list of quarter-finals ever concludes with an era-defining clash of the last two champions.

It has the marquee names, it has the arena and it will have European rugby's attention for what is likely to be 80 minutes of enthralling, heavy-hitting rugby by the Mediterranean.

Leinster have won plenty of big games during their dominant spell at the top of the tree, but victory in Toulon would at least match and probably surpass their 2011 semi-final win over Clermont in Bordeaux.

The champions may be light Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe and Ali Williams, but they can still boast an array of talent that would scare most teams.

Their starting XV consists of three internationals each from France and England, two Springboks, two Wallabies and one each from Argentina and New Zealand. Although there are three uncapped players in the line-up, their bench contains Martin Castrogiovanni, Maxime Mermoz and Bryan Habana.

So, it's just as well that Leinster are not most teams.

Jimmy Gopperth is the only member of their match-day 23 to be uncapped and if he, like Toulon's David Smith, was from any country other than New Zealand, he would surely have international honours to his name.

It is the Kiwi's selection ahead of Ian Madigan that has raised most eyebrows, although Luke Fitzgerald's complete omission came as a surprise as well.

Matt O'Connor's decision to go for the Kiwi, despite leaving him on the bench for the entirety of last week's win over Munster, seems a little strange. With just eight minutes of rugby under his belt since February 20, there is a real danger that Gopperth will be undercooked.

The Australian could be casting his mind back to his last visit to the south of France when the former Newcastle Falcon led his team back from the brink with two tries against Castres.

Having spent so much time on Tyneside, he will be fully aware of the presence of the man he replaced at the Falcons who will stand opposite him tomorrow – Jonny Wilkinson.

He will pull the strings for a Toulon side, whose last two games came against Clermont and Toulouse, with the meeting against the latter looking like a far more exacting workout than the Irish derby last Saturday.

Both teams have had eight days to prepare, allowing Brian O'Driscoll, Cian Healy, Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock time to overcome their injuries, while Jack McGrath and Marty Moore's presence on the bench is reassuring.

Healy's health and head will be crucial to Leinster's progression. In the absence of Sean O'Brien, the loosehead prop is essential to both his province and the national team, both in and out of the scrum.

He was outstanding in Paris, but could have landed his side in real trouble had his rash charge at a second-half ruck been spotted by Steve Walsh.

He was fortunate as, had he gone off, Ireland might not be Six Nations champions.


Another whose influence was keenly felt that night was Mathieu Bastareaud, who must have given Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll sleepless nights after ripping them apart at the Stade de France three weeks ago.

Operating outside Wilkinson and the sublime Matt Giteau, the near 19-stone behemoth will look to wreak havoc again. He is just one of a myriad of threats with ball in hand. In the back three, Smith, Drew Mitchell and Delon Armitage are all dangerous, while in the back-row, the brilliant Juan Smith is enjoying his second coming alongside Argentina legend Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe and wrecking ball Steffon Armitage.

Ruddock's power will be needed, as will Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip's nous, while Eoin Reddan will look to shift the ball quickly and drag the big men here, there and everywhere.

Pace and fitness are on Leinster's side, while they will need to dominate the tackle area.

The Blues must tire out the Top 14 side to have any chance, while taking every sniff of a chance that comes their way. They have done it before and are better placed than anyone to storm this venue, but this one could prove a reach too far.

Verdict: Toulon

Irish Independent

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