Gerry Thornley: Leinster prepared for Toulon test

Coach Matt O’Connor insists future a secondary concern ahead of challenge

Jamie Heaslip of Leinster is tackled by Florian Fresia and Michael Classens of Toulon in last year’s European Cup quarter-final at Stade Mayol. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Jamie Heaslip of Leinster is tackled by Florian Fresia and Michael Classens of Toulon in last year’s European Cup quarter-final at Stade Mayol. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

As both Wasps and Grenoble have shown in recent weeks, to take on Toulon, well, you have to take them on.

Wasps had them gasping out wide after taking the ball through the phases and the Grenoble backs coach Mike Prendergast this week pointed out that they scored three of their four tries against Toulon last Saturday after going through 10 or more phases.

Easier said than done, but as well as being way more accurate, Leinster are going to have to play with ambition.

Yet contrary to criticism of their performance when suffering a 29-14 quarter-final defeat in Toulon a year ago, Matt O’Connor yesterday maintained: “It wasn’t a lack of ambition last year I think it was a lack of execution. There was a lot of intent, probably too much intent,” he added, with Jamie Heaslip alongside him nodding in agreement.

‘No ambition’

“You can’t absorb against Toulon. They’re too good. You’ve got to play, You’ve got to execute. You’ve got to take your opportunities. You’ve got to make your opportunities first and foremost, and you’ve got to execute on them. There was no lack of ambition last year.”

Leinster’s “biggest mistake”, according to O’Connor, was to read too much into Toulon’s form going into that quarter-final, and drawing any parallels with Ireland’s win in France three weeks previously, as on the day Toulon were “20/30/40 per cent better than that had been at any time last season”.

‘Enormous battle’

Leinster need to target a number of areas for improvement, both compared to last year and recent outings, and the starting point must surely be shoring up a porous defence and making it into a weapon.

“Seanie (O’Brien) talked about it during the week,” said Heaslip. “We gave them opportunities with their carriers to get momentum in the game and they are a hard team. Once they get momentum they have got the backs that can build on that and cause you a lot of problems. We have to stop that. We have to negate that, have to have that bloody mindedness of drawing a line in the sand and you’re not getting over this.”

Quite where the kind of performance Leinster require to dethrone the back-to-back European champions can come from is a moot point, for in the context of this season it will be a one off.

“I think the fact that the stakes are so high would give me confidence in relation to the quality of players we’ve got on the field,” said O’Connor. “There’s going to be no lack of effort and I think the pleasing thing in performances – although we haven’t got the results – is the effort, and if you get the effort and you get the accuracy then I think we’re pretty close to where I think we need to be.

“That’s what we’re going to have to have at the weekend. The confidence is going to be there on the back of what the lads are doing in training. They’re good players. They work very, very hard at being as good as they can be, and we’ll know on Sunday.”

‘Not ideal’

A central figure, as ever, will be Wayne Barnes, and Heaslip laughed in reflecting how “I have had all the sides of Wayne. I have been red carded, yellow carded, I have been on the good side, the bad side of him. I actually really like the guy.

“Talking to him off the pitch he is a nice guy but during a game and before it, when you talk to him he is very clear in terms of what he is willing to take and how he is going to ref the game. He couldn’t give you clearer messages and he refs it very well around the ruck.”

To that end, O’Connor ventured that “Wayne was the best option for us down there,” adding: “He’s very accurate at the breakdown, there’s a few adjustments that have been made in relation to the interpretations that weren’t as relevant at the breakdown last year that are a lot more obvious this year, but from that end it’s a positive. He’s a good referee, as good as there is around.”

Tackle area

Steffon ArmitageMathieu Bastareaud

There has been some speculation around the future of O’Connor, especially should Leinster lose on Sunday, although he deflected this and the notion that reaching the European Cup final would be vindication for him.

“It’s not about me and that’s the reality. It is noise, it is a distraction and it’s about the group and preparing them to be as good as they can at the weekend to put us in position to get a result.

“What happens to me or all the other individuals within the environment is very, very secondary.”

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