Monday 27 May 2019

Neil Francis: 'Leinster haven't hit top gear yet - but they need it this time'

Toulouse renaissance makes them dangerous foes for home side who can overcome loss of key men

French resistance: Leinster’s Sean O’Brien is tackled by Florian Verhaeghe of Toulouse during the Irish province’s defeat in France in October. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
French resistance: Leinster’s Sean O’Brien is tackled by Florian Verhaeghe of Toulouse during the Irish province’s defeat in France in October. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The perception is that Leinster have gears. These are never really used in the PRO14 because they are never required. Leinster chalk up big numbers in second gear during the season. It's like the baseball bat under the bed; you never use it unless you really have to - on the burglar, that is.

Leinster also have a button which they press from time to time. They really didn't use it last year and some may say they didn't need to.

The Champions Cup final against Racing and PRO14 semi-final against Munster were occasions when you thought that at times in the game it would be a good idea to click into a Masters of the Universe mode. They persevered and worked their way through in mortal fashion.

I did think that they may have pressed it in Toulouse back in October of last year. Leinster may have lost 28-27 but they were very good that day and they gave a measured performance to lead the game 27-21 with 10 minutes left. Maybe jam a fourth try in the 79th minute. That would have been the pool wrapped up there and then.

Ragged

You could say that Toulouse were lucky when Louis Madaule picked off Luke McGrath's pass going right. It did at that stage look like Leinster were about to up the tempo while in possession close to the Toulouse 22. Toulouse looked a little ragged, some clever angles, find the dangerous players in blue, some ruthless clear-outs and suddenly Leinster would be in familiar scoring position.

A 34-21 scoreline and a bonus-point victory and quite likely that quiet revolution and renaissance in Toulouse would have died in embryo. It was the victory over Leinster that germinated an 11-game streak. Toulouse have not lost a match since. A lucky break?

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Toulouse surprisingly had done their homework and were able to recognise what Leinster do when they get into their rhythm. Madaule may have looked offside but he knew what was coming and where to pick his moment.

Leinster were 10 minutes away from following on from a formidable showing against Wasps in the first round with a bonus-point away win in Toulouse - and despite a fallow four or five years, it's still not an easy thing to do to go down to Stade Toulousain and knock them off their perch. Leinster though were one intercept away from doing that.

That may seem a little harsh on Toulouse - they have been unexpectedly good this season. Whither the transformation? Toulouse have been a pale imitation of themselves for the last five years. An ageing roster that took an age to get rid of. Some of their performances were an embarrassment. They were emasculated by Munster in 2017 in Thomond Park by 41-16.

The following season they played in the Challenge Cup and didn't even get out of their group. They had lost their flair, passion and their edge. As somebody explained to me about their partner, a husband is what is left of a lover after his nerve has been extracted.

Toulouse were an empty vessel!

Regis Sonnes, who spent a year or two in Bandon, Co Cork before he came on board and started a quiet revolution, may or may not have everything to do with the turnaround. Toulouse suddenly looked much fitter and much surer in what they were trying to do.

Defensively they were more cohesive and their forwards were much smarter at the breakdown. Nobody gets into breakdowns in the Top 14 but Toulouse changed the way they operated in this sphere because Leinster are so detailed here that if you let them control this area, the game is up.

Toulouse went back into their old play book and reinvented themselves and their imperious interlinking game between backs and forwards came to full fruition in their 39-0 thumping of a full-strength Toulon side. These two clubs don't play friendlies and there is enmity dating back to the last century. It was a mesmerising performance on a dry, crisp night and the superior fitness and dexterity in the Toulouse ranks told. If Toulouse play like they did that night, they will beat Leinster this Saturday.

There are, however, a number of caveats. Firstly, they have to get on a plane; secondly, they have to play a very powerful side in the RDS who tend not to lose there that often; and thirdly, they probably know that Leinster have a switch.

It is hard to gauge what teams will be picked for Saturday. From Leinster's perspective, it's also hard to know who is picking the team. There may be a few directives from above. Toulouse also have great depth and even in their big matches they tend to mix and match. You could have a difference of six or seven players in their strongest XV and change it again.

What is interesting is that Toulouse seem to have kept the nucleus of their best side together for their recent matches against Clermont and Toulon and yet they did not rest that many for their match against lowly Agen last week. Toulouse, in direct contrast to Leinster, have targeted this match to have their best XV playing their best rugby by the time they hit Dublin.

Leinster played their shadow side at home against Connacht and Ulster and let's just say their senior side did not exactly gel in Thomond in the middle of all that. Funny, though, in that game when Leinster looked like they could overcome Munster in the last 15/20 minutes that it was another very costly intercept which gifted the game away. Earls no more than Louis Madaule had known when and where to go for the intercept. Have Leinster become easy to read?

Turnovers

Again in the Munster game Leinster did not look after the ball as carefully as they could and they got turned over easy (sounds like a breakfast selection). Leinster too gave away 16 turnovers in Toulouse back in October - just a little too loose for the job that was required.

The weather is due to be good if both teams want to play an expansive game - a rarity in January. Despite their undoubted quality behind their forward pack, I think Toulouse are a little bit fragile defensively in their midfield. Maxine Mermoz is a good defender but Romain Ntamack and Sofiane Guitoune have fallen off tackles all season.

Guitoune, for all his outrageous running talent, only has five caps for France - the boy can step but can he tackle? If Leinster go for an aerial game and push Toulouse into their 22 that may be the safer and smarter way to win. If they attack outside shoulders and cut back in, I think they could do some serious damage.

Leinster will be seriously hampered by the loss of James Lowe - he was the best player on the pitch in Toulouse in October, just really dangerous every time he got close to the ball. You just know if he was playing he would score a try or two out of nothing.

I think Leinster will be primed with or without Sexton and I think they can win well on Saturday but they will have to push the switch, turn the lever, press the knob - whatever they do to get playing their very best rugby from the off and sustain it. Toulouse really think that they can win this one.

Irish Independent

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