Matt O'Connor is three-quarters of the way through his first season as Leinster coach and while his team sit top of the Pro12 league and are strong contenders for the Heineken Cup, a lingering impression remains that it's still the team that Joe built, an impression that only a win today can dispel.
Leinster have an excellent success rate on tough trips to France in recent years having, like Munster before them, had the misfortune of meeting Clermont on numerous occasions as well as being paired with reigning French champions Castres in the pool this season. Today's maiden visit to the Stade Felix Mayol ranks right up there in terms of difficulty with a trip to the Massif Central and Le Stade Marcel Michelin. Toulon have won 45 of their last 50 home league games, by an average score of 32-13, and all 10 of their home Heineken Cup games, by an average score of 38-17.
O'Connor unveiled a few surprises with his team selection, principally at outhalf where it had been thought that Ian Madigan had finally closed the debate, for this season anyway, as to who the starting No 10 should be. Jimmy Gopperth got the nod and is tasked with, hopefully, guiding what is quite a physical-looking Leinster 15 to a famous win.
Toulon's physical strength is renowned and while there was some comfort to be drawn from the news that Bakkies Botha – one of the most intimidating and physically brutal forwards I've seen – and Ali Williams both miss out, they have strength in depth. Another South African, Danie Rossouw, will lock down in the second row with French international Jocelino Suta, while players of the quality of Bryan Habana, Maxime Mermoz and Martin Castrogiovanni start on the bench – a bench that Freddie Michalak can't make, despite having scored 27 points in the 32-28 home win over Toulouse last weekend.
If they're seriously well-endowed up front, they are no less capable behind the scrum. While Jonny Wilkinson at outhalf is a hero in Toulon, Matt Giteau in midfield is their main source of creativity and, with his partner Mathieu Bastareaud coming fresh from a possibly career-best international performance against Ireland, will be extremely dangerous. Add a back-three of David Smith, Drew Mitchell and Delon Armitage into the mix and it's a daunting prospect.
It's no surprise that, apart maybe from Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan, Matt O'Connor has gone for his physically strongest 15 available. Those two exceptions, and Reddan in particular, were key contributors to the win over Munster last Saturday night so there is no surprise in their retention; there's always a requirement for a more cerebral contribution, especially in the most physical of teams. Apart from outhalf, the major talking point is the back-three. Like their hosts, Leinster have an abundance of riches in this area and one from Rob and Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Zane Kirchner would have to miss out on the 23.
Fitzgerald is the surprising choice. Kearney and McFadden are proven operators on the wing and bring a real solidity and work rate to the team, and Kirchner is an effective and physical presence off the bench but I can't help but feel that Fitzgerald's omission may return to haunt O'Connor. It's my view that if Leinster are to succeed, then at some point in the game a creative spark will be required and, apart from Brian O'Driscoll, of all the Leinster backs available, Fitzgerald is the one best-equipped to provide that, especially from the bench.
The overall strategy appears to be one of matching, in so far as possible, the physicality of the locals and counteracting it where appropriate. Guile, efficiency and refereeing interpretations at the
breakdown will be every bit as important. A massive commitment of mind and body will be needed. Leinster can't afford to drop their guard at any point as Toulon will pounce immediately and will take no prisoners in doing so. The sheer physical pummelling that the French side will look to inflict will be something O'Connor's team hasn't experienced since facing Clermont last season. Discipline will be crucial and Leinster will need luck on their side too in terms of injuries and refereeing decisions.
Leinster have shown serious capability on the road this season with wins at the Ospreys, Castres and Northampton and that experience will inspire confidence. This afternoon's game though is a step-up to a different level again, and the odds are ever so slightly in the home team's favour.
It should be a classic, and a Leinster win would undoubtedly be one for the scrapbooks, right up there with Toulouse in 2006 and Clermont in 2012. It would also facilitate, finally, the commencement of the Matt O'Connor era and the banishment of the Joe Schmidt era.