Tuesday 18 June 2019

Jamie Heaslip looking forward to taking on Paul O'Connell and Toulon in Champions Cup

Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland. The Leinster number 8 expects big hype when O'Connell lines up for Toulon against the Irish province in the pool stages of next season's Champions Cup
Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland. The Leinster number 8 expects big hype when O'Connell lines up for Toulon against the Irish province in the pool stages of next season's Champions Cup

Declan Whooley

Leinster backrower Jamie Heaslip says that Paul O'Connell's presence in the Toulon squad will add extra spice when the sides meet in next season's Champions Cup pool stages.

The three-time Heineken Cup champions bowed out at the penultimate stage of last season's competition when they were edged out in extra-time by the Top 14 giants on their way to retaining their European crown.

Today they were again pitted against the French powerhouses, along with Premiership sides Bath and Wasps, also familiar opposition from last season.

The return of Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa to the Leinster ranks will renew optimism after an underwhelming campaign last time out.

However the presence of Toulon, who will go in search of their fourth successive crown, will ensure supporters are under no illusions at the size of the task at hand and have been priced at 14/ to win the competition outright.

While thoughts of a new campaign are at the backs of the minds of those involved in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad with a World Cup looming, the Naas man admits that he was still keeping a close eye on proceedings today in Switzerland.

Sean Cronin in action against Toulon last season
Sean Cronin in action against Toulon last season

"Like most of the lads I was glued to the laptop this afternoon," he said.

"As much as you look forward to the off-season, it isn't long before you start looking towards critical dates and I suppose from a Leinster point of view that first date was today and the draw for the Champions Cup.

"In many ways it is hard to even visualise the Champions Cup and the pool games as November is so far away. I very much stay in the moment and focus on the next game or the next challenge and I suppose there is so much rugby to be played between now and then.

Heaslip admits the challenge in facing the free-spending French outfit was going to be a challenge even before the inclusion of the Munster legend to their star-studded squad.

Paul O’Connell
Paul O’Connell

"Obviously there will be the hype around Paulie and his return to these shores to take on an Irish team but leaving Paul (O'Connell) aside, Toulon are a formidable outfit and have recruited really well once again.

Leinster are more than familiar with their two other opponents in the group. Wasps were accounted for at home in the pool stages last season before a nervy away draw secured their passage to the last eight where they saw off the challenge of Bath.

Heaslip is more than aware of the challenges both side will cause and is also looking forward to playing against a couple of recently departed team-mates.

"To come up against another two of last seasons' opponents is unique I suppose but in the same way as with Castres last season, you have to take each game on its merits.

"Bath finished out the year very well and on another day could have been in Tier 1 as Premiership winners, while Wasps were the leading try scorers in the Premiership. We'll also be coming up against Jimmy [Gopperth] and Brendan [Macken] so that's another tie where there will be plenty of interest.

Leinster may have come tantalisingly close to reaching the decider last year, but fell short in an error-strewn semi-final against Toulon. Speaking as part of a group where moral victories are nothing but a distant memory, the Irish international knows that while last year was a learning curve for some of the squad, a return to the final day of the competition is very much the target.

"Last season was a huge stepping stone for this group of players reaching the semi-final and pushing Toulon as close as we did," he said. 

"But that is no consolation. You ultimately want to reach the biggest stage and hopefully after reaching a quarter and a semi the last two years we can go one better.

"The nucleus of this team is very young. The likes of Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath were all competing in European Semis for the first time. That is brilliant experience for those lads.

"We have also lost some big characters but with Johnny [Sexton} and Isa [Nacewa] coming back, and other lads coming in, and the experience we have gained over the last few seasons, we'd be hopeful of giving a good account of ourselves again next season.”

European Professional Club Rugby confirmed at the draw that next season's Champions Cup final will take place at the Grand Stade de Lyon on May 14, with the Challenge Cup final played at the same venue the previous day.

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