Hugh Farrelly: Fortress Leinster
WHEN Leinster claimed European glory two years ago, Rocky Elsom garnered most of the plaudits.
But arguably the most significant individual contribution was provided by defence coach Kurt McQuilkin.
Although born and reared in New Zealand, McQuilkin was steeped in Leinster rugby through his involvement with Bective Rangers, Lansdowne, the senior provincial side and Ireland.
He knew that Leinster were perceived as something of a soft touch when the physical pressure came on, and set about addressing the issue.
So successful was he that by the time he returned home to New Zealand, Leinster had one of the best-organised defensive operations in the business, and his departure left a considerable void.
Enter Joe Schmidt. Though Leinster's head coach is lauded primarily for his attacking innovation, the New Zealander has also assumed responsibility for the defence, maintaining and improving upon the standards set by McQuilkin.
Superior defence is the main reason why Schmidt's side should be able to navigate their way past the daunting challenge of Toulouse in this afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road (3.30).
It promises to be a hell of a contest -- deserving of a final billing -- as these are unquestionably the two top sides in Europe.
Munster followers might challenge that assertion after the province's recent reaffirming victory over Leinster at Thomond Park.
Tony McGahan's men deserve immense credit for their determination in grinding out that win, but when Leinster had their game-heads on in the first half, they were clearly a level above their opponents in thought and deed.
Furthermore, although they let their concentration slip in the second half with the match seemingly won, it is instructive for today's contest that they did not allow their try-line to be breached.
In the quarter-final against Leicester, it took that modern-day rarity of a forward charging onto the ball at pace and from depth for the Leinster defence to be broken close-in.
Toulouse, although opting to omit the world's most unpredictable runner Rupeni Caucaunibuca from their match-22, provide greater attacking threat than either Munster or Leicester, particularly in their back three of Cedric Heymans, Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard.
Their midfield of Florian Fritz and Clement Poitrenaud is none too shabby either, although Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'arcy will fancy their chances against Poitrenaud as opposed to Yannick Jauzion, their tormentor in the corresponding fixture last season, who is named on the bench this afternoon.
It will require utter concentration in defence from the home side, and Schmidt's in-depth knowledge of the Toulouse threat through regular analysis during his Clermont days is a huge boon.
The visitors are less convincing at half-back. David Skrela has been around for a while without ever truly convincing as a top quality out-half, and with no Byron Kelleher or Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, both very effective last year, Guy Noves has turned to the talented but callow Jean-Marc Doussain at scrum-half.
Up front, there is plenty of certainty. Thierry Dusautoir starts among the replacements, but a back-row of Louis Picamoles, Nyanga and the unheralded excellence of captain Jean Bouilhou packs plenty of punch.
Likewise, Patricio Albacete in the second-row and William Servat at hooker, while props Jean-Baptiste Poux and the gargantuan Census Johnston will seek to emulate the demolition job done by Benoit Lecouls and Daan Human last year.
That will not be as easy this time around. Cian Healy runs out in Lansdowne with a point to prove, Mike Ross has anchored the Leinster scrum all season and the importance of scrummaging as a unit will have been drummed into the home pack by Greg Feek all week.
There is a settled assured look to this Leinster unit, with Schmidt selecting the same side that accounted for the Tigers in the last round.
There can be few arguments with that decision, although Fergus McFadden's excellent form again loses out to the quality of competition, while Kevin McLaughlin's return to full tilt allied to his line-out proficiency keeps Shane Jennings in reserve.
As well as their defence, the other compelling argument for a Leinster victory is the Lansdowne Road factor.
It has been often noted how the French, above all other nations, operate under a logic-defying Jekyll and Hyde-patterned umbrella when it comes to home and away fixtures, and Toulouse, for all their history and talent, do not seem nearly as intimidating in Dublin as they did in the south of France last year.
It should be remembered also that, although Leinster were beaten by 10 points 12 months ago, they went into that match battered in body and with the industrious but limited Shaun Berne at out-half.
They have Jonathan Sexton in place for this one and today is the perfect opportunity for the St Mary's man to emphasise his international quality against Skrela, who has never managed to nail down the France No 10 jersey.
As ever with Irish teams, the mantle of favourites introduces an element of nerves, but the evidence is clear that if Leinster play to form they have the ability and determination from last year's disappointments to do the job today.
Toulouse are relishing the role of underdogs, with Noves stating tongue-in-cheek this week that he hopes his men can avoid a hammering.
The veteran Toulouse guru is a coach to be admired and respected and he will have a victory plan this afternoon and the personnel to execute it.
The comforting thing from a Leinster point of view is that so will Schmidt, whose stock is on a seemingly inexorable rise.
You suspect it will require an uncharacteristic below-par performance from his charges for Toulouse to prevail. On the assumption that this will not materialise and that Leinster will defend their realm with focused frenzy, Schmidt's side should win by a couple of scores.
Either way it promises to be a compelling afternoon's entertainment.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: J Harris-Wright, H van der Merwe, S Wright, D Toner, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, F McFadden.
TOULOUSE -- C Heymans; V Clerc, F Fritz, C Poitrenaud, M Medard; D Skrela, J Doussain; J-B Poux, W Servat, C Johnston; Y Maestri, P Albacete; J Bouilhou (Capt), Y Nyanga, L Picamoles. Reps: V Lacombe, D Human, J Falefa, T Dusautoir, N Bezy, Y Jauzion, S Sowerby, G Lamboley.
Ref -- Dave Pearson (RFU)
Leinster v Toulouse,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 3.30