Hope at a premium as Leinster look to Marseille
This week, Leinster will find out if the long grass suits them. They say it’s the hope that kills you, so the three-time European champions can count their blessings that there’s not too much of that around just now.
Rarely have they made their way into a semi-final on the back of such little optimism outside of what Matt O’Connor likes to call “the environment”. Before the teams have been named, the bookies are offering an 11-point spread, while the last remaining Irish province are the least likely team to claim the Champions Cup title this season, according to the odds.
The reasons for the lack of optimism are primarily two-fold. On Sunday, Leinster face a Toulon side who have not lost a game in Europe since losing the 2012 Challenge Cup final to Biarritz, while their own season has been inconsistent at best.
Perhaps the best place to start is in the bowels of the Stade Felix Mayol where Matt O’Connor sat in a cramped media room to reflect on his side’s exit at the quarter-final stage last season. Leinster had just been blown out of the water by a Toulon side who gave perhaps the best performance of their era of dominance to date.
The Australian is not prone to overstatement and when he was asked to account for his side’s 29-14 trouncing, he summed it up as “a disappointing result, not so much to lose but the performance”.
“We’re a better side than that,” he continued. “It’s knockout footie. If you’re not very good, especially away from home, you won’t get the result. I wouldn’t read too much into it, I don’t think it’s a bigger issue than we underperformed against a very good side.”
O’Connor’s problem this week is that his side have rarely been very good all season and this week they go to Marseille in search of a performance without a form-line to back it up.
In many ways, he is doing the impossible job of attempting to sustain the success of his predecessors without the same playing squad. A third of the team who beat Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final have retired or left and when those five players are Brian O’Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Brad Thorn, Johnny Sexton and Leo Cullen, you know you’re in for a rough ride.
When Schmidt moved on to the Ireland job, he began to pick his old players en masse and when O’Connor took to the national airwaves on Friday evening to address criticisms in an extended interview with ‘The Last Word’, he conceded that things haven’t gone to plan, but offered reasons for the problems.
“The comments in relation to the style of rugby and those sort of things, that’s perception and they’re entitled to their opinion. The guys don’t focus on that, they’re pretty bullet-proof and focused on working on things we can control, on righting the wrongs that we perceive are in our game,” he said.
“There’s a huge amount of growth in us. The reality of it is that, out of the 18 players that have played internationally, they have averaged eight of our 18 league games. That’s 30pc, that changes what you can deliver on week in, week out, the continuity of what you can deliver is affected and that impacts on the end product.
“That’s naive,” he said when asked if the squad depth should keep performances up. “There’s all sorts of things at play in relation to the dynamic that goes into a performance and, to think that guys can fit in and out of that seamlessly, blokes who have been injured, who haven’t been with us for 10 weeks at a time impacts on the quality of the performance.”
That then calls into question O’Connor’s (pictured, below) decision to rest his frontliners for yesterday’s game against the Dragons, but the pace of the Bath quarter-final meant that the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney needed the weekend off to be ready.
Toulon, meanwhile, gave some of their big names a rest in their win over Grenoble on Saturday. They managed to get 80 minutes under Matt Giteau’s belt but may have lost Leigh Halfpenny for Sunday’s game after he suffered a dislocated shoulder.
While fans and pundits might be writing Leinster off this week, Ulster winger Tommy Bowe believes they can get a result. He has faced the might of Toulon twice already this season and, while the northern province struggled badly on both occasions, the Ireland star reckons Leinster can bridge the gap.
“You can be excited about it. When we played them we were excited; of course when we went over to play them away from home we rested a few players and made it pretty difficult for ourselves. It wasn’t a score that we would be very proud of,” he reflected.
“As a team, Toulon’s back-row are so strong with the likes of (Mathieu) Bastareaud there in the centre, he adds an extra back-rower. But Leinster have an extremely strong back-row too that can combat that. With the team that Leinster have they have the know-how to go away and win in France against the top teams. If there is any team in this league who can go over there and grind out a victory, Leinster are the team you would back.”
Leinster can look back a year and recall their pack dominating the home side at scrum time, but operating a loose lineout that stopped them building pressure on the Toulon pack.
What truly cost them, however, was their utter decimation at the breakdown where Steffon Armitage continues to be the class act in Europe this season.
Along with Bastareaud, the openside blitzed Leinster at the ruck and Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien and Heaslip have a job on their hands on Sunday.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Toulon did their damnedest to sign two of Leinster’s three back-rows last season while Cian Healy will be at the top of their list when his discussions begin next season.
Leinster are not playing the all-singing, all-dancing running rugby of yore, but they do possess a gnarled pack with lots of caps that is respected across the continent, but their issue is their inability to score tries in the biggest games.
“We’re a hugely different team than we were last year,” Rob Kearney explained. “We’re a hugely different team than when we won it in 2012 and ’11. You can’t keep looking backwards, and it is important that we do the best with what we have now. We’re not fulfilling our potential at all.
“It’s not frustrating because we’re winning. I don’t want to go into a game scoring six tries, and lose by two points. I did enjoy the Scotland game without a doubt, but I had massive enjoyment of the England game too.
“The dynamics of every game are very different, but we need to score tries against Toulon.”
As he begins preparations for a week that will define his tenure, O’Connor agrees.
“The fact is that we’ve got to go there and perform very close to our potential to beat Toulon. The lads understand that,” he said. “It’s a huge challenge for us, they’ve world-class blokes in every position. We need to come up with a plan to go there and try and get the result.”