Conor O'Shea: Leinster will have to change mindset and take risks
Varying point of attack with offloads is the only hope against Toulon, writes Conor O’Shea
You will get long odds (I’ve seen 9/2) on a Leinster win today in what is a two-horse race. Toulon have to play the game at a neutral venue in Marseille, but it will still feel like home.
The two-time European Champions are the Real Madrid of rugby, a collection of galacticos that, on their day and despite their ageing profile, have the ability to rip you to shreds. When Toulon speak of having an injury crisis, their coaches should be asked to visit clubs that work with a different level of resources.
So how do Leinster approach this game, for what is realistically now their only chance of silverware this season? Most clubs would be happy with qualifying for the European semi-final but expectation at Leinster is different and that in this particular instance is a good thing.
Leinster have players who are not just satisfied with a semi-final appearance. They are serial winners for both province and country so they are not going out to come second. That winning mentality may lead to frustration with their form in the Pro12 but now that they are written off by everyone for today’s game, that winning mentality can be a weapon.
The bigger question is how do they stop the Toulon juggernaut? Toulon can turn on the style and power for 10 minutes and take the game away from you. For Leinster to win today they have to do something different to what they have done all season. Statistics can lie but they also indicate a trend as to a team’s mindset. Statistically only one team in the Champions Cup has off-loaded the ball less than Leinster and that is Benetton Treviso, yet only one team (Harlequins) has passed the ball more per match and only two teams have carried the ball more per match (Harlequins and Toulon) than Leinster. And no prizes for guessing the competition’s top off-loading team: it is Toulon with an average 17.7 off-loads per game, compared to Leinster’s 5.3.
So what do those stats say? Because there are broad similarities as to how Leinster play in the Pro12 when you look at that but they are not as stark. What they tell you is that Leinster want to play with ball in hand but they want to overpower you with their runners. They want the now resurgent Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien (who weren’t there for the early rounds of the competition) to get them over the gainline, and from there they can play.
There is nothing wrong with this policy and it has served Leinster incredibly well but they are coming up against a Toulon side who are built and based around power. I was always told growing up that you should never just try to outmuscle someone because you will always meet bigger and stronger, you have to adapt and have different ways of playing and thinking and for me, if Leinster are to be successful they have to go out with an attitude of risk versus reward.
Earlier in the competition I watched Toulon go to Belfast and literally beat Ulster up. They were just too big and too strong. It was obvious from the word go almost that there was only going to be one outcome in the game.
Toulon, though, can be erratic. They can be up and down in the Top 14; from time to time they can look like they are in second gear, just keeping teams at arm’s length as they do not worry, it is all about the result for them. The Champions Cup, though, is different for Toulon. This is one that their galacticos love to be in and just as I described the Leinster mentality as one which allows them thrive in this environment, it is the Toulon mentality to know they are up against a formidable foe in Leinster and to raise their game — and as and when Toulon do raise their game I don’t believe there is a team in Europe that can match them.
So the Leinster approach today can’t be one of carriers trying to run over the top of Toulon — do that and they will die a slow and inevitable death. Leinster have to get their runners running and off-loading, moving the point of contact and dragging an ageing Toulon team to places on the pitch they don’t want to be. Then they may just have a chance. They will need luck but when don’t you in sport?