Saturday 16 December 2017

Leinster look to Matt O'Connor template to topple European kingpins Toulon

Johnny Sexton in training at the RDS this week. Below: Leo Cullen faces one of the toughest test of his short Leinster reign
Johnny Sexton in training at the RDS this week. Below: Leo Cullen faces one of the toughest test of his short Leinster reign
David Kelly

David Kelly

Leinster fans we met last weekend did not appreciate the irony.

Just as they are fighting for their very European existence this season, the shuddery Pro12 form that ultimately steered them into this trouble shows signs of levelling out.

Last season, the reverse applied: Leinster consolidated European qualification before bowing out in the semi-finals to eventual winners Toulon as, all the while, their league form flatlined.

Which is one of the reasons they are meeting Toulon this season much earlier than they would normally have been expecting, such was their perilous seeding status.

They enter one of the continent's most inhospitable venues this Sunday seeking not merely to survive but thrive; victory is non-negotiable should they wish to progress, also ensuring that most of the 40,000 ticket holders for the Aviva return actually use them.

Few punters would dare contemplate that Leinster should seek some measure of inspiration from Matt O'Connor and his approach to last year's agonising extra-time loss in Marseille's Velodrome.


However, while most Leinster folk only recall his name with disdain, current defence coach Kurt McQuilkin was on the outside looking in and was impressed with the execution of that day's admittedly ascetic game-plan.

Indeed, he declares that Leinster's approach this weekend will differ very little from that of the much-maligned Australian.

"They've lost a few, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams from their pack but they're pretty good with Samu Manoa and Mamuka Gorgodze," McQuilkin observes, "but at that stage of the season last year Leinster shut them down particularly well.

"The biggest thing watching from afar as a spectator was the line-speed from the previous time they played them in the European Cup - they shut them down and didn't them time and space which put Leinster in good stead for that match last season.

"We're going to try and do the same types of things, take away their time and space and not leave them too much time on the ball."

Precisely what Leinster do if they have the ball remains the conundrum; when they met Toulon in the previous year's quarter-final, they treated possession disdainfully until they realised too late that playing rugby offered them the best chance of success.

Their basics were also below par, such that the primary aim last time had been to avoid missing the unforgivable lapse of 27 missed tackles in 2014; they did rectify the anomaly, and their set-piece was solid. As usual under O'Connor's tutelage, though, the attack stunk.

This season, Leinster have marginally improved but they remain profligate and, even if they fended off all but one Wasps incursion to the red zone in round one, they still coughed up too many facile scores from long distance.

Under Leinster's hastily assembled coaching group, their brief reign bears all the hallmarks of such rushed appointments; when one facet of their game seems to have been repaired, another crumbles spectacularly.

Leinster are staring down the barrel of a pre-Christmas European exit.

"It's not ideal," admits Mike Ross, who buttressed a competitive scrum last season but was promptly whipped off when conceding his first penalty. "I don't think we anticipated it.

"I can't recall needing a win to survive this early. It's my seventh season at Leinster. Generally, we get off to a good start. We have to work very hard to make sure we're still in the reckoning in January.

"The Wasps result was most frustrating. If our scrum had functioned against Bath, we probably would have won. That was a hard one for us to take."

For the sake of his wife Kimberlee at least, never mind thousands of expectant fans, Ross is demanding their set-piece is resuscitated.

"My wife will tell you I'm not a great person to be around," he says. "I am just sitting there alone, thinking. As a front-row forward, the scrum is what you're judged on.

"If that doesn't function, you stare at the ceiling at night thinking about it, replaying it, wondering what you could have done differently.

"We didn't shirk from it. The day after all the front-row came in and looked through it. It wasn't the most pleasant feeling.

"But we made a promise it wasn't going to happen again."

Knowing what is coming, however daunting, helps rather than hinders.

"It does," accedes McQuilkin. "Our players know them inside and out through Joe Schmidt's regime and the Irish regime."

But just in case familiarity breeds too much content, Toulon yesterday confirmed that Ma'a Nonu has been added to their European roster just as Leinster's lock Hayden Triggs was pole-axed for the rest of 2015 with leg surgery.

Surviving a storm is one thing; overcoming it quite another.

Irish Independent

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