Trevor Hogan: Toulon look unstoppable – but mighty Munster maul can derail juggernaut
'This place is crazy." Injured Toulon second-row Ali Williams' pre-match words to the media summed up the daunting atmosphere Leinster were facing.
When the quarter-final line-up was initially decided, Leinster's trip to the intimidating Stade Felix Mayol, against one of the most physically imposing teams in Europe, was always going to be the most difficult of the challenges for the Irish provinces. This is how it proved. When Toulon got their first try in the 45th minute, the cauldron that had been bubbling all afternoon exploded.
Munster will be relieved to some degree that their semi-final against the European champions won't be at this venue – their fixture being set instead for the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles on April 27.
But that is where the solace will end for the southern province as, yesterday, Toulon put on the most complete performance of the Heineken Cup to date. Outside of some poor maul defence and discipline at scrum time, this French side, even after losing Jonny Wilkinson early on to a hamstring injury, displayed few weaknesses.
Despite showing some great resilience, especially with their scramble defence, Leinster struggled to cope with the power of Toulon's ball carriers, who broke their defensive line repeatedly. The visitors slipped off tackles, often getting their feet planted by the footwork of centre Matt Giteau or by simply getting bounced by the explosive second-row Danny Rossouw in particular. The hugely dynamic hooker Craig Burden also made some key incisions, and the French side's aggression and fight in contact prevented Leinster from getting in their trademark steals that have hurt so many sides in the past.
More tellingly, as Jamie Heaslip and Matt O'Connor acknowledged after the game, Leinster weren't accurate enough in the crucial area of looking after the ball. In this regard, Toulon's ability to disrupt Leinster's momentum at the breakdown was crucial. Leinster were unable to build pressure, largely due to the influence on the deck of the game's top performer, Toulon's Steffon Armitage.
Armitage has the perfect physique for poaching the ball on the floor, his squat, low centre of gravity combined with the sheer size of his legs and upper body making him almost impossible to move. Once he got in first over the ball at the ruck, Leinster were in trouble. He was a rock. The same could be also be said of Mathieu Bastareaud, who got at least one massive turnover.
At half-time Leinster would have been quite happy to head into the changing-room with a score line of 6-6. They had weathered huge amount of pressure from Toulon and had possibly gained a psychological edge from this.
In that first 40 minutes, they had used their superior set piece, scrum and line-out maul to great effect, earning them the vital six points, from two penalties. Their early strategy was to rely on the kicking game of Jimmy Gopperth and target Drew Mitchell's aerial skills – an indication of why Gopperth was preferred to the running threat of Ian Madigan.
The tempo of the first period was generally dictated by Toulon through scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, threatening around the ruck, tying in defenders and setting up the big carries from their pack. Still Leinster's scramble defence reflected the attitude of champions and the game was still in the balance at the interval.
However, the pivotal 10 minutes came at the start of the second half, beginning with a key play from loosehead Xavier Choicci. He won a crucial poach, getting to the ruck a split-second before Cian Healy, and earning the first three points of the half.
Soon after, another line break from Burden brought Toulon right up to the Leinster line. After failing to capitalise in the first half, the French side were focused on being clinical in the red zone and hammered the line with hard and direct carries, and Choicci's try was a clear example of this.
The Irish side in response upped the tempo, and Rhys Ruddock had some big carries as Eoin Reddan injected a huge pace. But, again, Armitage sucked the energy from the fightback with a couple of major turnovers. The killer blow ultimately came from huge lineout pressure by Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe on a Leinster throw, which led to the hack-through, resulting in Drew Mitchell's try.
Leinster never gave in, though, and showed some great fight and hunger of their own, typified by great turnovers from Brian O'Driscoll, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy. Murphy's try from the maul – with great patience and structure – showed Munster an area that they can target against Toulon for the semi-final in Marseilles.
Irish sides are the best in Europe in this aspect of the game, and French sides in particular struggle against the shape of our drives. Munster, despite the huge challenge they face, showed against Toulouse that they already have a big advantage in this area.
For Leinster and Ulster – who displayed massive resolve against Saracens despite the very harsh sending-off of Jared Payne – the focus will turn quickly to the Pro 12. The historic opportunity of getting three Irish sides into the semi-finals is gone for another year.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.