Isn’t is such a lovely feeling to head into a Champions Cup playoff the weekend after your team has just lifted the Pro14 trophy? It was a very important final to win given that we were up against our Irish rivals from the south, Munster! The way in which the boys and blue dispatched them was great to watch, the scoreboard very much flattering the men in red. The ultimate bragging rights are secured and the media are by default our no.1 supporters for the next few days. There’s not a lot of time to dwell on the success of last week as we have another challenge this week against the men in red, but not from the south of Ireland, but from the deep south of France, the red of Toulon! Kick off is 5:30pm at the RDS.
Leinster have not had great days out against Toulon in the past, having lost to them in a quarter final (2014) and a semi final (2015) in the Champions Cup. The latter was a very tough one to take when the game had to go into extra time and only for a missed drop goal from Gopperth in normal time, we would have gone through to the final! However, Toulon’s Bryan Habana secured the match winning try in extra time and knocked us out again!
Make no mistake, Leinster will be mindful of Toulon and will remember the hurt of losing out on a chance to lift silverware in the final. A lot has changed between the two sides since they last met. Leinster was coached by Matt O’Connor in that 2015 semi final and Toulon where the top team in Europe having lifted the two previous Heineken Cups, and subsequently went on to win three in a row that year! Leinster were going through a stage of transition and weren’t performing to their highest potential. So much so, Matt O’Connor was fired at the end of the season and made way for Leo Cullen. Since that semi final, Leinster lost 5 of their 6 Champions Cup pool matches the following season, and then got beaten by Connacht in the Pro12 final! Not a great start for Cullen, but then the following season, we got a bit closer by getting to the semi final of the Champions Cup (beaten away to Clermont) and got knocked out of the Pro12 by Scarlets in the semi final. A year later however, we won the double, Pro14 and Champions Cup, and since then reached another european final and won 3 more Pro14 titles in a row! Now that’s progress!
Toulon on the other hand fell off a cliff, not winning anything since 2015. Their style of play got predictable and teams targeted that. They have not been able to reach the same heights even to this day. However, on occasion, they show glimpses of their former brilliance and they will be looking to prove their worth against an opponent they are familiar with overcoming on big days!
Today’s game has a lot of intrigue to it. It’s a huge game for both teams, a chance to assert some dominance in the championship and lay down a marker to all other teams that are next to face them. For Leinster, it’s a chance to turn a corner on last season’s underwhelming quarter final performance at the Aviva Stadium against Saracens. Leinster are a much more resilient and smarter team since then and very much look like their getting their mojo back. Based on their performance against Munster last week, they look very sharp and prepared for European challenges.
It’s important to point out that this game is indeed a knock-out game but it’s not a quarter final, more like a playoff to make the quarter final. Reason being, only 2 out of the 6 games from the Pool stages were able to be completed due to issues encountered in Europe through the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was made to promote the top 16 teams to a battle out for a playoff where 8 eventual quarter finalists would emerge. Leinster secured two wins from two in the pool stage so were promoted as top seed and secured a home playoff. It’s certainly an odd way to go through the championship but it represents huge opportunity for the 16 teams left in it.
Here’s the team selection from Cullen & Co.:
15. Hugo Keenan (25)
14. Jordan Larmour (55)
13. Rory O’Loughlin (80)
12. Robbie Henshaw (54)
11. James Lowe (49)
10. Johnny Sexton (172) CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath (145)
1. Cian Healy (227)
2. Rónan Kelleher (20)
3. Tadhg Furlong (110)
4. Devin Toner (262)
5. Ryan Baird (20)
6. Rhys Ruddock (186)
7. Josh van der Flier (92)
8. Jack Conan (101)
16. James Tracy (125)
17. Ed Byrne (65)
18. Andrew Porter (72)
19. Ross Molony (112)
20. Scott Fardy (75)
21. Hugh O’Sullivan (28)
22. Ross Byrne (98)
23. Dave Kearney (165)
Another beautiful team selection. The starting 15 are all internationals, with another 5 on the bench. Hugo Keenan, who played every minute of the 6 Nations campaign for Ireland, as well as an 80 minute performance against Munster, retains his starting spot at fullback. James Lowe is back in the starting lineup after making the bench last week. Larmour retains his starting place as do the centres; Henshaw and O’Loughlin aka Loughshaw! Sexton is back into the starting 15 following a bench spot last week. Mc Grath continues at scrum half.
The front row of Healy, Kelleher and Furlong is just ridiculous! Coupled with the rest of the pack; Toner, Baird, Ruddock, Van Der Flier and Conan, our scrum should be rock solid!
Most notable on the bench is the absence of Gibson-Park who has been replaced by Hugh O’Sullivan. Ross Byrne and Dave Kearney also have been moved to the bench following fantastic starting performances in the final last week.
It’s a great selection, full of experience, strength, intelligence and power. Similar to the Toulon selection in fairness, they have a large number of world class players from around the world.
Where the game will be won
Leinster will need to play an open game, one where they throw the ball around and seek out gaps in the defense. The Toulon squad are quite a heavy and sturdy bunch so Leinster will need to stay clear of getting caught up in an arm wrestle. This is where I believe Sexton will need to be on form with the boot and decision making. There may not be a lot of chances for Leinster to score tries so accuracy and a clinical edge in the 22 will be key to their survival.
Toulon will want to control possession and run through the phases using their giant pack. The more Leinster get sucked into the close exchanges with their pack, the more gaps that will open up. So a strong and smart defensive structure will be crucial.
A smarter kicking game will be required too. Leinster need to bring back the little dinks over the top and cheeky grubbers on attack, these have been the hallmark of a lot of success in the past, but have taken a back seat in recent seasons. A varied approach to their attack will enhance the journey to the tryline.
Toulon lie 6th in the Top14 league table. Leinster has just lifted the Pro14 trophy at the RDS 7 days ago. You have to feel that Leinster will be coming into this game on a high and ready to take the next step towards ultimate glory in the Champions Cup following two seasons of heartache. Toulon have been off the radar for a few years and I don’t feel that they’ll be ready for the kind of intensity that Leinster will bring. I believe they will be ready to front up against us, but will fail when trying to manage an unpredictable attacking style that Leinster bring. I think home advantage will pay off too.
I expect a high tempo performance from both teams but a lot more accuracy from Leinster which will be the difference between the two sides. My cheeky prediction is that Lowe will score first, and Henshaw will get over the line in the second half.
Leinster 24 – Toulon 15
Game cancelled due to COVID-19 case within Toulon squad. Leinster progress to the quarter final against Exeter.