Saturday 17 March 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster hopes hang on desire and decent kicking

Toulon can be beaten, but to win Leinster will have to be at their best, writes Neil Francis

‘One other thing that Gopperth must do today is run at Freddy Michalak’
‘One other thing that Gopperth must do today is run at Freddy Michalak’
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We are only asking questions here. That is, can we expect a legitimate challenge from Leinster today? Do they remember the team they used to be?

Based on the evidence this season, is this a team that wants to be remembered for something? Have they behaved like a team that has a date with destiny? Is there a sense that they think this championship is worth fighting and dying for? A possibility that if they should fail that their dead bodies be carried off the field on their shields. Is there any point in writing a preview when it is just as easy to write a review now for today’s match? Is there an all-pervading sense of resignation and acceptance attached to this match from the blue side?

Conventional wisdom tells me a margin between eight and 18 points could be Leinster’s fate. Shag convention, we will go with the line that Leinster might just produce something that will make this a game. Once Leinster are competitive, anything can happen. The team in blue stand at the intersection, the path to the oasis, is also a few false steps away from oblivion.

I have no idea what Leinster got up to in the last fortnight. They could all have been shooting pool and playing a little Texas hold-em. Training is only of value if it prepares you for what is ahead. Whatever Leinster have been doing in training hasn’t worked and if what they have done hasn’t worked for the Pro12 it is unlikely that it will work for a corporeal examination by the strongest and meanest team in Europe.

‘Play like a champion, train like an underdog’ says the marketing blurb. I hope Leinster thought through what is required to win against Toulon. The bedrock of any upset victory is desire. I have always found that enthusiasm and resolve have a funny way of trumping logic and the odds.

Quite often in my career I arrived on the field of play with a big powerful pack and a dangerous, pacy backline, ordained many times over as favourites because of our size, power and pace. We felt like a python — the mindset was to entreat our victims not to put up a fight, accept your fate and we would squeeze the life out of you. Teams that wouldn’t accept their fate, teams that put up ferocious resistance, and teams that had thought through how to exploit our weaknesses — well they were just a little bit more than awkward.

Ben Te’o was in try-scoring form against the Dragons and Leinster fans will be hoping that there is more of the same from him against Toulon
Ben Te’o was in try-scoring form against the Dragons and Leinster fans will be hoping that there is more of the same from him against Toulon

Teams that would not let us play the game at a pace that suited us, teams that stood up to us and were spiky and aggressive beyond the names on their teamsheet. Teams that kept at us and kept tackling and knocking us back and did it all match, well they just weren’t any fun to play against.

The biggest ingredient in any upset victory is unpredictability. Powerful teams love it when the match goes to plan, when patterns and phases work out and you get comfortable with the way the game goes and that confidence grows. Tactical hijackings and a completely different strategy is unsettling and it goes an awful lot further than quick throw-ins, tap and go penalties and keeping the ball in play for long periods with no kicking or counter-attacking on every kicked ball.

Whatever else is certain about today’s match, if Leinster attempt to play an orthodox-type game they will be blitzed off the park. Last Sunday at Rodney Parade I think I witnessed what was in ornithological terms the first starling of summer. The lesser spotted off-load was seen for the first time all season. Leinster are second last to Treviso as the team who have off-loaded the least this season. For the 30 minutes or so in the Dragons game that they decided to play rugby, they cut the Dragons to pieces with an off-loading game that has not purposely been used. Ben Te’o, in particular, looked inside every time he got into contact and if support wasn’t there he held it up for a second or two. Leinster looked really good playing their natural game. They then folded up the tent and went back into playing the one-dimensional dross they’ve been playing all season.

Toulon off-load and do it as a matter of course and they get their big men doing it. Toulon’s video coaches will have told their squad that Leinster place the ball and ruck when the tackle goes in. If Leinster want to win this game they have to be unpredictable and they have to take risks. Off-loading sides cause Toulon trouble and the sides that have beaten them in the Top 14 this season and last year have squared up to them up front and kept the ball off the deck.

Here is the rub. The French being the French have put their most effective player on the bench. He might come on after 10 minutes, he might come on after 70, nobody knows what goes on inside Bernie Laporte’s head.

I have never seen a player who is more physically pre-disposed to steal ball at the breakdown than Steffon Armitage. It’s not the 15 turnovers/steals at the breakdown or the penalties he earns, it’s how many players you have to send into the ruck to clean him out. He doesn’t start — maybe he does really have a sore knee — but with him off the park Leinster suddenly look like they have a chink of light in this area. Chris Masoe is also very effective here but the thing is that it is physically draining playing no-risk clear-out rugby, and pretty much like they did this time last year Leinster will run out of players and will be forced to kick and here they will struggle.

Clermont's Brock James (C) is tackled by Toulon's Chris Masoe (L) and Matt Giteau (R)
Clermont's Brock James (C) is tackled by Toulon's Chris Masoe (L) and Matt Giteau (R)

Jimmy Gopperth was very poor all across the park last year in the Felix Mayol. His distribution was wayward and he took the ball so deep that Toulon had three or four players waiting in the tramlines because they drifted without worry and their line-speed was impressively direct.

Last week against the Dragons, and even in the pool stages, Gopperth’s kicking was on the loose side of aimless. Twice last week he had time and space to look up to the Dragons’ secondary and see where they were aligned and he still managed to kick directly to them — they didn’t move one step. The experience of the quarter-final in Stade Felix Mayol pre-supposes that he will be a better player for it today. The problem is that Toulon place four players in their backfield in a parallelogram and it is almost impossible to put the ball either wide or in behind. Toulon have such power that they are confident that they can deal with anything teams throw at them on the line. Having four in their secondary is the luxury of the knowledge of how good they are defensively.

Much has been made of the notion of moving the ageing Toulon pack around the park and there is merit in that but the guys they really have to move around are their backfield. Run the ball, bring them into the line and then put the ball in behind. Heretofore Leinster’s kicking for territory has been poor. They need to kick for territory today but they average seven or eight loose kicks a game. If they keep this average up they will not stand a chance in this match.

It is worrying too that Ireland, who were so proficient in their kick-chase, were staffed by 13 Leinster players who have not been able to bring that form back to their province. Leinster’s kick-chase and box-kicking have been awful. An unchased kick or a kick too long is a turnover.

One other thing that Gopperth must do today is run at Freddy Michalak. Freddy is a player who has managed to fool all of the people all of the time. Cadbury’s have named their best-selling chocolate bar after him and if Gopperth, who has real pace and is a forceful carrier, does not run at him at least a half a dozen times it will be a waste of one of the great opportunities that Leinster have.

Toulon showed a little too much respect when they played last year, only realising coming up to half-time that Leinster had nothing and that it would be in order to open the throttle. That 29-14 defeat could have been a whole lot worse. That underperformance was dispiriting, and another one of those is unacceptable.

At the very least I expect Leinster to be competitive and give Toulon a real fight/fright. At the very best a performance of invention and aggression allied with measured calm and recognition of who they are could put them in a position for one of the great upsets. There is absolutely no form or evidence to suggest this but a lot of this side have winner’s medals and if they get a foothold early on they have a chance. Toulon are beatable. 

The match could be over after 20 minutes but champions get it right from the start.

Read more: Conor O'Shea: Leinster will have to change mindset and take risks

Read more: Leinster need a French revolution

Leinster players including Ben Te'o (C) and Darragh Fanning look dejected after their defeat to the Dragons
Leinster players including Ben Te'o (C) and Darragh Fanning look dejected after their defeat to the Dragons

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