Saturday 25 November 2017

Leinster underdogs must go on the offensive to stifle French hosts

David Kelly

David Kelly

Are Toulouse getting agitated as another coronation awaits?

Their coach Guy Noves is barking out strict instructions at the team's final run-out at Le Stadium, threatening any foreign body that dares to invade his team's space.

Anyone daring to even cast a mere glance towards the green sward were told in no uncertain terms to 'Allez tout suite.'

Leinster, in contrast, seemed coolly detached as they underwent their final preparations.

A couple of injury concerns, notably to their powerful scrummaging hooker William Servat, may have inveigled their way under the home side's sweating skins; as the hour of their destiny approaches, the consequent pressures are multiplied a hundred-fold.

It's in stark contrast to the opposition, resigned for weeks, seemingly, to the loss of Jonathan Sexton, but buoyed by the return of full-back Rob Kearney from injury.

"Jonny was desperate to play and we gave him every opportunity," explained Leinster coach Michael Cheika. "But we felt it was too big a risk and we also have the player's welfare and safety in mind. We have 100pc confidence that Shaun Berne can do the job."


On the defensive all week in their public pronouncements, Leinster know that the only way they can upset the odds-on favourites in their back yard is by all-out attack. Not necessarily the impudent, scintillating verve that so detached Toulouse during Michael Cheika's first season in charge when they so stunningly upset the favourites here at the quarter-final stage.

No, as forwards coach Jono Gibbes thoroughly outlined during the week, their attack must be predicated upon a fearsome approach in the tight exchanges, one so clearly lacking in the opening bows against Clermont in the RDS quarter-final.

That day, their clinical edge in terms of taking chances and Brock James' repetitive bottling with the boot as Clermont failed to take theirs, ensured that Leinster limped over the line.

In reality, Leinster are still limping and that, as much as the predictable absence of their big-game player Sexton, undermines many of the arguments supporting a shock victory today.

With Sexton gone, Leinster will presumably seek to kick more and their chasing game will need to be physically aggressive; Berne will not be able to ape Felipe Contepomi four years ago here and cut loose. He is simply not that type of player.

Ultimately, attitude will be crucial. "If you bring the wrong attitude to any game of football," says Cheika, "you're at risk of getting beaten and I don't think there's any fear of us bringing the wrong attitude to this game."

And yet, as understandable as it has been, if a tad unusual, to witness the sight of the defending champions seeking to downplay their chances this week, perhaps Leinster can seek to turn the circumstances to their advantage. It is the only way. For, allowing Toulouse the front foot in the build-up is one thing, creating the opportunity for them to get their noses ahead come kick-off -- with Poitenaud, Clerc, et al -- would be suicidal.

Just as against Stade in the quarter-final, and once more against Castres in their most recent encounter, Toulouse are wonderfully adept at keeping sides at arm's length before burning them in the later stages.

And, if Leinster allow the deep-lying Toulouse backs to gain an early foothold, especially if Leinster's body height at rucks and physicality is so awry as early on against Clermont, then they will also be burned.

Jamie Heaslip mused during the week that perhaps this Leinster side had used up all their luck during the week. Quirks of fate will not win them this game, only as complete a performance to match their finest achievements of the Cheika era.

Switching the focus then, as ever in a game of favourite against underdog, Leinster have nothing to lose. The pressure will be on the home side and Leinster must seek to pose pertinent questions from the outset.

They still retain the inestimable weight of baggage that being a defending champion entails; look at how it energises Munster in similar situations.

Trouble is, Toulouse, three-time winners and perennial contenders, know this competition's foibles better than anyone.

Having been mugged last year at the quarter-final stage, they do not want to succumb again, especially now that the day of reckoning will be staged in the home city of their despised capital city rivals, Stade.

It will be as much a mental as physical task for Leinster. Their willingness to engage comprehensively at rucks, attack the scrum and line-out, will dictate the flow of possession either way.

Lose that battle and Toulouse will flourish, while Berne will struggle if he is forced to operate even a half-yard further back than he normally enjoys. The Australian is a gifted play-maker, but only when his No 8 is dominant.

Yannick Bru's installation as forwards coach has injected a new dynamism into Toulouse's play, not that that which went before cast them as shrinking violets.

"I think they're a bit different," agrees Cheika. "I think they've been re-enforced in the forward pack. I think the forward coach that's come there has added a lot to them as a team, and their programme is very profiled.

"Their back-row for example, there's a strict ball-carrier, there's a strict line-out operator and there's a strict tight player. They know their profiles and they put those combinations together."

Leinster, with Heaslip continuing to perform a talismanic role, a la Rocky Elsom last year, will be required to lead from the front.

Cian Healy will be chomping at the leash, having finally usurped the underperforming CJ van der Linde after a confusing April for the Clontarf man.

That they have been down this road before, not only in beating Toulouse at this venue, but in finally emerging as European top dogs last season, should serve to inject resolve, determination and belief into this Leinster squad.

And, with Brian O'Driscoll on the pitch, Leinster -- and more pertinently Toulouse -- know that anything is possible.

But, just as a sense of destiny engulfed Leinster last season, so too Toulouse this term. It's hard to see past them.

Verdict: Toulouse

Irish Independent

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