Leinster need a French revolution
O’Connor must break new ground to defeat Toulon, says Jim Glennon
An interesting week for Leinster. I suggested last Sunday that a more important issue than their style of play under Matt O’Connor is whether the coach is getting the best from his squad. Last Sunday, in Rodney Parade, the pressure was ratcheted up a few notches when their failure to close out what should have been a comfortable lead over the Dragons left Leinster’s Pro12 prospects all but dead.
Today, they find themselves in Marseille facing a Toulon team that put them to the sword in the quarter-final last season and is now closing in on an unprecedented third successive tournament victory.
An interesting week, but a strange one too. Losing to the Dragons twice in two months represents a form-line that is unacceptable. Today, however, we expect to see a very different Leinster. The spirit of 2009 has been invoked. That squad was written off by most and went into a Croke Park semi-final against Munster with a palpable sense of fear amongst their faithful. What ensued provided the springboard for everything achieved in subsequent years.
Grenoble, with a coaching team including Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast, have demonstrated how to play against Toulon. Even when going down 35-24 last weekend, Grenoble outscored the French champions four tries to two.
We often hear it said that to be successful against New Zealand an opposition must ‘play’. The same can be said of Toulon. To be in with any chance, Leinster will probably need at least two tries, such has been the tissue-paper quality of their defence of late. Toulon, though, have shown signs of late that time might just be catching up on them. Their play has not reached the heights of last season.
Their scrum has also been seen to creak on occasions, and while it remains a strong unit, the Leinster scrummaging specialists will be looking to test them. Their lineout might not be impregnable either. Toulon’s game is based on a sometimes brutal physicality, but its key is ruthless execution by the outside backs. If Leinster can disrupt their set-piece, they will go a long way towards nullifying those wide threats.
Even if Leo Cullen’s forwards assert themselves, a question remains over Leinster’s ability to create and exploit scoring opportunities. In Europe, the accuracy of Ian Madigan from the placed ball has been Leinster’s dominant weapon. The point validly made by the Leinster camp, particularly after their quarter-final win over Bath, has been that if a defending team concedes penalties, the attackers have little option other than to take the points. Whatever the merits of that, we have yet to see a consistently creative and offensively effective Leinster backline this season. It will take more than a benevolent performance from referee Wayne Barnes to deliver the goods today.
The selection of Jimmy Gopperth at out-half, with a centre partnership of Ian Madigan and Ben Te’o, has not helped Leinster’s cause, and today will be their acid test. To beat Toulon and negate the strength and aggression of their forwards, they will have to move them around the pitch and keep them moving. When they stop moving, they will just have to move them on again. With carriers of the quality of Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, Leinster will be looking to take the game to the French.
The south of France rarely presents anything other than a massive challenge. Toulon are hot favourites, but there is always a chance — such is the essence of sport. The spirit of Croke Park 2009, and more, will be required, and the coach must break what is, for him, new ground — he must get the best from his squad.