Fergus McFadden confident underdogs can teach the doubters a lesson
Fergus McFadden reckons that anyone with an interest in rugby will want to go along to the Aviva next Saturday for the return leg in the Leinster versus Toulon tie. The stats would seem to support him, with circa 42,000 tickets sold by last week. Either this largely will be a Christmas jolly for a good portion of those who have already shelled out, or there is a residual belief among their fans that Leinster can go where the bookies believe they have no chance. Zero from two is hardly the preamble you want en route to a stadium where the three-in-a-row champions are unbeaten in Europe's premier competition.
"I know, it is difficult but hopefully we can do it," he says. "If we can go over there and beat Toulon, with everything that's going on off the pitch, with doubters and people writing us off . . . if we go over there and beat them it'll be one of Leinster's biggest feats in the last six years, probably since we won out first Heineken I think. No team has done it in this competition. They're the Harlem Globetrotters, according to you guys (the media) and everyone else."
It doesn't do much for their chances that Toulon, having fallen over backwards in the Ricoh last month to Wasps, then did the unthinkable and went to the Auvergne, sticking 35 points on Clermont in the Top 14, before unloading over 50 on Agen last weekend in the same competition. So they are back on track on both fronts. And the bookies will give you money if Leinster can stay within 15 of their opponents today.
"Last year the spread was probably around six or seven," McFadden recalls of the meeting in the semi-final. "Toulon were probably playing better than us in the competition and definitely would have been favourites. Yeah, 15-point favourites is quite large and if we're not at 90 per cent, or at our best, that could happen over there.
"They're a pretty ridiculous outfit. Looking at the pack, they're clearly looking to bully us. I don't think they could have a bigger back five than the one they've gone for. It's absolutely huge, so I think moving them around the pitch is going to be a big thing for us. I think we need to go over there with the ambition to play."
If being winless from their opening two games in Europe is an almost new experience for Leinster - it hasn't happened since 1996/97 - for McFadden it's something of a shock to the system. His arrival in blue postdates the days when winning was occasional rather than routine. And he has to adjust.
"I came into the club I suppose at a time when it was at the beginning of an amazing journey for a few years," he says. "All I knew was winning. So it's been kind of . . . in a weird way you don't take for granted what you're doing to put yourself in that position, but you do take for granted that it's going to keep happening. And I suppose over the last few seasons you start to worry then and you think, 'Jesus the margins have gotten so much smaller, some of the teams have recruited to the level they have'.
"It's just, you kind of look at it and think you need to be perfect from week to week to be in that position. I suppose three or four years ago you could have an offish day and beat a team you maybe should beat by 20 points. It can be daunting from that perspective. When you're staring down at a period where there was that success and (now) there's a lot of doubters, and continuing to back yourself and do the things that have been right over previous seasons."
It's at times like this maybe you wonder if you should have taken the boat when there was passage waiting. McFadden's head was turned by Leicester at a time when he was only sure of getting his game when there was a gap in the middle of the field. Since Joe Schmidt arrived and put wing ahead of centre on his CV, his rating has changed. He stayed and will be there for a few years yet.
The shift in position facilitated McFadden's Ireland career as well. By now he has 33 international caps and this afternoon is his 134th game for his province. The landscape has been transformed in that period. Now he sees telephone numbers being offered as salaries and recognises the challenge for outfits like Leinster to retain talent they have developed themselves. Surprisingly, he says, not that much dressing room talk centres on who's supposed to be going where.
"Sometimes, when it's a bit too close to the bone and they've probably got enough stuff going on off the field, you don't really hear it as much in the changing room," he adds. "It's more when something is done and dusted that the slagging will happen. I don't think it's fair to get onto guys, because from personal experience, for the likes of Ian (Madigan) or whatever going through that process at the moment, it can be difficult to separate and get on the field and just clear your mind. You might be under pressure to play particularly well, or it's running through your mind you could be going here, there, or (if) will you be here next year. You have enough going on in your head without your best friends getting on your back as well, along with you guys (the media).
"I just remember even before Johnny (Sexton) ended up going, that stuff was all broadcast pretty early and clearly all the stuff that was going on with him, and guys didn't really slag him a whole lot. It was more when he was actually going. Lads left baguettes and a French flag at his spot in the dressing room. He didn't like that too much!"
Leinster will need Sexton in top form for his first game against a French club since coming back to Leinster. He looked thoroughly dejected with the result in Bath in round two, where Leinster played some decent rugby, albeit with gaps in between the good bits.
"In terms of putting us under pressure with the ball in hand, I don't think they (Bath) ever really did in that match," McFadden says. "The only passage of play where we really got motoring and we didn't, say, knock the ball on or come out with an unforced error was the time that Josh (van der Flier) got that try. That was a pretty outstanding team try, but we've just been struggling to put patches like that together. Three or four patches like that against any top team, and you'll come out with at least three or four points.
"I think this weekend that is going to be huge, trying to put in close to 10 if not more phases of quality lines of shape in and around nine and off 10. I just think that this week is this week, and I think if we can go over there and get four points, we are right back in the group. We just have to do that if we've got aspirations of having any chance of getting to the last 16."
Four points in Toulon today and they'll have the sold out signs in Aviva on Saturday.
Toulon v Leinster
Toulon: Delon Armitage; Bryan Habana, Mathieu Bastareaud, Ma'a Nonu, Drew Mitchell; Matt Giteau, Eric Escande; Florian Fresia, Guilhem Guirado, Matt Stevens; Samu Manoa, Romain Taofifenua, Mamuka Gorgodze Steffon Armitage, Duane Vermeulen. Replacements: Anthony Etrillard, Xavier Chiocci, Levan Chilachava, Juan Smith, Tom Taylor, Maxime Mermoz, Anthony Meric, Jocelino Suta.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Ben Te'o, Luke Fitzgerald, Isa Nacewa; Johnny Sexton, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh Van Der Flier, Jamie Heaslip. Replacement: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Tom Denton, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Dave Kearney.
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