Tuesday 20 February 2018

Memories of Aviva horror show keeping Claassens on his toes

Claassens: Facing Leinster again
Claassens: Facing Leinster again
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is probably just as well for Toulon's Michael Claassens that his side are at home this weekend because it sounds like he still gets sleepless nights about his last visit to Dublin to play Leinster.

The former Springbok was part of the Bath team who conceded a half-century of points in their pool clash at Lansdowne Road before Christmas in 2011 and the sigh he emits when asked about that game tells its own story.

Things will be different this Sunday, however, as the scrum-half and his current outfit host the three-time champions.

Claassens is a perfect example of the strength in depth Toulon possess. At most clubs he would be a first-choice No 9, but with the European champions he is never sure of his place.

It makes Leinster's task this week a difficult one as they prepare for the unknown. Even Jonny Wilkinson's not safe after Freddy Michalak's virtuoso display against Toulouse at the weekend, so the Blues' video analysis will have to be far-reaching.

While the Pro12 champions' team will probably be easier to figure out, Claassens knows better than to underestimate them and he'll be relaying that message to the stars that occupy the home dressing-room at the Stade Felix Mayol.

"The Dublin game was not the best," he says with the understatement only Afrikaaner rugby players can truly manage.

"They scored 50 or 60 against us. It felt like 30 guys against us that day. They're a very organised team and coached well, they have a lot of internationals and are one of the top teams in Europe."

Despite facing Clermont and Toulouse in domestic competition over the last two weeks, the 31-year-old reckons the arrival of the three-time champions will represent a further step up.

"It will probably be our toughest game of the season," he said.

"They've got strengths and big names all over the pitch. They're one of the most difficult teams to play against and they're Irish as well, so they're very passionate."

While Leinster were getting one over Munster on Saturday evening, Toulon were proving too strong for Toulouse in Marseilles.

That put them second in the Top 14, a competition they have yet to win since their recent resurgence, and from the outside it would be easy to see that as their focus.

However, Claassens believes Europe – despite the wrangling that has gone all season – remains the pinnacle for the champions.

"It's a huge positive," he said of last year's victory. "It's brought a lot of exposure and brought a lot of players. It has been a great thing for Toulon, for the team and the city.

"But being Heineken Cup champions raises expectations. There is a bit of pressure on to perform again and win again this year. A lot of boys like playing here in the French league but they like to play in the Heineken Cup as well.

"You play a bit more. It's not like the French league, where they play three or four phases and then kick. There's big hype around the Cup."

Irish Independent

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