Sunday 16 June 2019

Neil Francis: Are Leinster in the right frame of mind to tackle mighty Toulon?

‘Apparently Goliath was only 6ft 9ins — two inches shorter than Devin Toner. I’m not sure how handy Dev is with a slingshot’
‘Apparently Goliath was only 6ft 9ins — two inches shorter than Devin Toner. I’m not sure how handy Dev is with a slingshot’
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

An archaeologist working in the Israeli desert discovered a sarcophagus containing a mummy. He announced to the world that he had just found a 3,000-year-old mummy of a royal who had died of a heart attack. Tests on the mummy confirmed the archaeologist's findings and in a subsequent press conference a journalist asked him how he was so sure that he had died of a heart attack? "Simple" said the archaeologist "there was a slip of paper clenched in his hand that said 100,000 shekels on Goliath."

What price was Goliath I wonder? I find that often when the odds become inverted in a two-horse race the favourite mentally almost starts to lay off himself.

Toulon are 1/10 today. I can't make my mind up to go with or against the spread of 15 points. Toulon are overwhelming favourites.

Apparently Goliath was only 6ft 9ins - two inches shorter than Devin Toner. I'm not sure how handy Dev is with a slingshot. David's advantage unquestionably was that he was more nimble and, more importantly, nimble of mind. There may be something in this biblical parable for Leinster. Whether they are in the right frame of mind to have a go is what is central to determining the outcome of this game. What chance a random 80 minutes of bloody-minded obstinacy?

I have to make a confession here. I almost have to bless myself and seek absolution from the almighty as I flick on the TV to watch Toulon. I have watched them four times this season. It's a kind of guilty pleasure. I can't explain why they were so ineffectual against Wasps, nor can I adequately convey the channelled power and aggression they demonstrated when they cowed Clermont into submission in their own backyard.

They are easy on the eye when they get in to motion. Fluid and determined, they have a high skill level all across the field, but when someone like Delon Armitage scores you can appreciate - but you can never applaud. I always watch them on my own.

Are they beatable in this year's Champions Cup? If they lose again in the pool stages they will have to travel for their quarter-final. They could get turned over quite easily away from home. They could even get beaten in the Aviva Stadium next Saturday, but they are unlikely to get beaten by Leinster today unless something really special happens.

As a precursor for any Leinster attempt at the improbable, there are certain ground rules for playing giants away from home. No unforced errors, no early tries, no cheap penalties, no stupid mistakes, no falling off straight-up tackles and no weakness at scrum time. The prepared mind ensures that all of the above do not happen. It's called concentration. If there is a repeat of the first half against Wasps it will be a mess, a painter's radio of a game.

The key to challenging away from home is to be in the game to the 60th minute. If you are close on the scoreboard coming into the last 15 then anything can happen. It comes down to Leinster's mentality; desire gives a team staying power.

There are very few areas where I can see Leinster being able to exploit any weakness in Toulon's armoury. Leinster's game-plan thus far this season looks like it came out of a flat-pack furniture manual. That seemed to be the case last season too but there was a big jump in efficiency and intelligence when they played in the Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille.

I look at the Toulon roster and the brutish power liberally sprinkled throughout its ranks. Their back row are quite possibly the top three in the world at challenging for the ball on the ground after the tackle (when is David Pocock joining Toulon?). Everyone knows what Steffon Armitage can do on the deck - the usual four or five steals at the breakdown and his frustrating ability to make reasonable ruck ball unusable by his sheer presence at that ruck.

Duane Vermeulen, if you have been watching South Africa and the Cape Stormers, is every bit as unreasonable at the breakdown. His physique and body angles are just so obtrusive it is almost impossible to dislodge him out of the ruck.

Mamuka Gorgodze has had an offer from Dublin Corporation to work as a human clamp. Even in their tight five Manu Samoa is also highly proficient in this area.

Toulon's midfield are also masters on the deck: Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma'a Nonu are invincible at the breakdown.

What advice do we proffer? Get numbers into the breakdown? Get far more clinical with the presentation of the ball? It just seems hopeless. It may be easier to say than do but if you are going to inconvenience this Toulon side the simple fact of the matter is that you try and ensure that there are no breakdowns. The ball doesn't go to ground. Every contact should be seen as an opportunity to play out of the situation you are in. Challenge yourself to stay on your feet. Stand tall and off-load and let your supporting players do the damage. Anyone who carries and goes to ground shouldn't receive the ball.

We have seen what the great off-loading sides of the world can do, as the All Blacks, Argentina and Australia so ably demonstrated in the World Cup. This Toulon side are the best off-loading side in Europe - all it takes is a weak shoulder and they mop up the opportunities. Off-loading is a philosophy and everyone in that Toulon side is keyed in to it. They do it at speed and quite often the support runner takes the ball really close to the carrier. It barely qualifies as a pop ball. They also change angles at the point of contact. This is something that Leinster used to do but they have lost sight of the art. Toulon will do it half a dozen times and will score if they are in the mood.

We wait for the big performance from Jonathan Sexton. After his departure from the French game he looked white and was shaken like a dry Martini. It looks like he has not fully recovered his mental faculties, nor is his generalship back up to the standards that we expect from a mature 30-year-old international player.

If Leinster are to learn anything from their defeat in Marseille last year it was that Toulon had, at any one stage of phase play, five players in the back field with 10 on the line. There were two to cover the dink/chip and then the back three in their normal position - pretty much unhindered by anything they received because their pack and their defensive line were not moved around convincingly enough. Sexton will have to run and run from almost every position on the pitch and move that Toulon pack around. When Toulon are jumbled up, Sexton's 180-degree vision is required to place the ball where Toulon are not. Kick-chase and downtown kicking options just aren't going to work.

Nonu is the best centre in the world and he was the best centre in the world when Brian O'Driscoll was playing as well. Conrad Smith is the second best centre in the world, and whether we would like to admit it or not he was better than O'Driscoll as well. The longest centre partnership and now the most highly paid.

It is a testament to the All Black system that when Nonu started playing for them, his kicking was a long way off where it needed to be. He looked like a drunk kicking a can down the road after closing time. The All Black machine put extensive work into this area of deficit and now his sense of awareness of when and where to kick is only matched by his deft execution of the act. He is the most complete attacking player in the world. Toulon know exactly what they have with this player.

It is a sad fact of life that, at his zenith with a skill-set which is almost unmatched which was honed from a fairly basic model to what it is now, someone like Mourad Boudjellal can just write a cheque for all that intensive investment. He will cause untold damage today.

I don't get the impression that Leinster are at the right pitch mentally to change the expected course of this game. There is an underdog opportunity here; maybe the Toulouse Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2006 might have been worth a look prior to today's match.

Maybe they should borrow from Kasabian's excellent song Underdog. "I got my cloak and dagger in a bar room brawl. See the local loves a fighter, loves a winner to fall. Feels like I'm lost in the moment, I'm always losing to win. Can't get away from the moment, seems like it's time to begin. It don't matter, I won't do what you say. You've got the money and the power; I won't go your way. I can't take from the people, they don't matter at all. I'll be waiting in the shadows till the day that you fall."

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