Galacticos of Toulon should shine too brightly for Leinster

Everything will have to go Leinster’s way if they are to overcome reigning champions

To put the scale of the task facing Leinster into perspective, never have they been handed a more difficult knockout game in Europe's blue riband. Put another way, were they to storm the rebuilt Stade Vélodrome and dethrone the two-in-a-row champions, in front of a raucous sea of red with a sprinkling of blue, it would assuredly be Leinster's finest victory ever.

Michael Cheika's holders of 2010 were dealt a pretty tough hand when drawn away to Toulouse after a Six Nations which also left them without Johnny Sexton. That, at least, was six weeks after the Six Nations, but Matt O'Connor's class of 2015 have been drawn away to the back-to-back champions, just four weeks after 13 of his match-day squad made their final contribution to Ireland retaining the Six Nations.

Furthermore, not alone do Leinster not have Sexton, but compared to the last of their three-time European Cup winners, a bunch of other high-achieving, high-performing players as well. And however good Toulouse were in 2010, or Clermont were when Leinster emerged triumphant at the same stage in 2012, Toulon’s pedigree in recent times has marked them as a class apart in France and Europe.


Nor, as O’Connor confessed during the week, does Toulon’s week-to-week league form matter much. Their venerable collection of galacticos are big occasion players – witness last season’s Euro-French double. They can win brute ugly or, as Ulster discovered when shipping 60 points in the pool stages, can cut loose.


Unfortunately for Leinster, Leigh Halfpenny has been selected, pending a fitness test on his shoulder injury, and along with Delon Armitage gives them a 55-metre radar of the Leinster posts, while their chief playmaker Matt Giteau has been fully restored at inside centre following his return from injury off the bench in the quarter-final.

Coupled with all this, Leinster come into this game on the back of two wins in their last seven games, evidently short of confidence when games become tight. Their defence has recently begun to leak like a sieve. The quality of their kick-chase game, their clearing out at the breakdown and the accuracy of their passing and variety to their attacking game have all slipped off too.

Yet there are causes for optimism. As was the case in last season's quarter-final, Toulon thrive on turnovers more than anyone else, but their effectiveness here has been clipped by Steffon Armitage only being named on the bench – presumably due to a knee injury. That's a huge boost for Leinster, albeit that Juan Smith – a significant thorn in Leinster's side a year ago and who will enhance their lineout – returns.

Their pack is old, their half-dozen Southern Hemisphere forwards are almost 34 years old on average. Toulon have won only two second-halves in the Top 14 this season – admittedly they are typically French in often winning games by half-time and then easing off.

Better equipped

However, Leinster also have the scrum reserves to sustain an 80 minute effort, and in recalling a dozen starters to re-select the quarter-final line-up, Leinster ought at least be fresher and better equipped for an 80-minute performance.

The Toulon 10-12 channel of Freddy Michalak and Giteau might be got at, and Toulon do defend quite narrowly, and can be exposed out wide, especially if they are taken through the phases, as Wasps showed in the quarter-finals. The key for Leinster must be to emulate Grenoble's gameplan of last Saturday, according to their Irish coaches, and keep the ball in hand, and move that old juggernaut of a Toulon pack around.

It could pan out a number of ways, with temperatures forecast to ease off to the mid-teens amid a high risk of showers. It should also be a hell of an occasion, despite the ridiculous new format insisted upon by the leading English and French club powerbrokers, which amongst other things affords contestants only a fortnight to organise ticket sales.

An attendance of around 35,000, akin to the figure at the same venue for last season’s Toulon-Munster semi-final at a half rebuilt Vélodrome, is expected. Leinster’s travelling support is more likely to be around 1500 – short of the 2,400 which attended last season’s quarter-final or the 2,200 which went to the Stade Chaban Delmas.

So Leinster, 11 point and 9 to 2 underdogs, won't have many friends in the Vélodrome, and the degree to which Wayne Barnes withstands the baying demands for home-town decisions and polices the game will, as ever, be hugely influential. If, as O'Connor has hinted, Barnes is consistent with his interpretation at the breakdown as he was in Cardiff for the Wales-Ireland game.

Like much else though, this looks a fairly forlorn hope. Leinster have a chance, for sure, and have nothing to lose. The circumstances of the game ought to ensure they bring more intensity to this game than any other this season. Maybe they will rediscover their offensive defence, and clear out more ruthlessly, and either contest kicks or chase them in a more cohesive line than has been the case of late.


Maybe Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner can have their best game of the season. They’ll probably need to. Ditto Jimmy Gopperth. And maybe Ian Madigan’s star in the eyes of Leinster followers can assume a new level, and Ben Te’o will announce himself after last week’s encouraging two-try display.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. But for Leinster to produce their best performance of the season by some distance and beat Toulon really would be remarkable. Alas, there’s simply no compelling evidence to go by. Previous meetings: (2013-’14) (q/f) Toulon 29 Leinster 14. Betting (Paddy Power): 1/5 Toulon, 28/1 Draw, 9/2 Leinster. Handicap odds: (Leinster – 11 pts) 11/10 Toulon, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster. Forecast: Toulon to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times