Toulon test marks the start of Leinster’s season, for real

Rugby’s first galactico club lie seventh in Top 14 but Leo Cullen remains very wary

Catastrophe on the Côte d’Azur. Imagine Mick Dawson going on Today with Claire Byrne to give Leinster players a tongue lashing after James Lowe was red carded for elbowing Conor Murray, an act that accelerated a 50-point loss to Munster, and you have a sense of how Toulon come tumbling into Ballsbridge.

A superstar banned. A 54-16 trashing in Lyon. The head coach recalls his young outhalf from the Six Nations camp. The young number 10 gets injured. Last week’s meltdown prompted new owner Bernard Lemaître, who is dramatically less colourful when compared to the comic book bad guy Mourad Boudjellal, to mete out some public humiliation.

Rugby’s first galactico club lie seventh in the Top 14 with their European campaign roundly expected to run aground at the RDS Showgrounds.

“It’s a catastrophic defeat in terms of result,” said Lemaître, the pharmaceutical millionaire, on Tuesday, “but what is even more annoying is that the whole team resigned individually and collectively. There must be a serious question over attitude.”


But, like an old elephant, Leo Cullen never forgets. RC Toulonnais ended Cullen’s playing career before ruining his first foray into coaching and – just to twist the blade – threatened to upend his time as Leinster chieftain before it ever got going.

“Their model, when they were hugely successful and they had an unbelievable roster of players” noted Cullen, “meant other clubs in France tried to replicate that model and it became very competitive to sign some of those marquee players.

“They were definitely ahead of their time in terms of what they did.”

What they did was nothing short of sensational, extremely expensive and unsustainable. Three European titles in succession with a Bouclier de Brennus dropped into the middle of a stretch when their squad included some of the most gifted, albeit ageing specimens the game has ever seen.

“I experienced that as a player,” said Cullen. “My last game in this competition was losing a quarter-final away to Toulon, my first year coaching we lost that semi-final away in Marseilles, if you remember, it went to extra-time and Bryan Habana picked off the intercept pass and my first year here as a head coach we lost back to back in the club games in December. So, they are a team we have struggled with over the years in this competition.”


Residue from Toulon’s squad building philosophy remains with Eben Etzebeth – the ultimate comic book bad guy – joined by a slightly less glittering array of stars, although the list does include inspirational France captain Charles Ollivon.

No way Cullen is paying any heed to hissy fit verbals on the French Riviera, but there negative noise has been building for some time. The nightmare defeat in Lyons was sparked by Ma’a Nonu, who turns 39 this summer, taking umbrage with Jean-Marc Doussain’s dunt by planting a forearm into Doussain’s throat. It was not as bad as it sounds but Nonu is suspended. Fellow All Black Isaia Toeava is also unavailable.

It gets worse. Louis Carbonel, the next French wonder at 10, was zipped back from being 24th man against Scotland and now he is injured.

“I would have done better to leave him to Marcoussis,” said Toulon coach Patrice Collazo.

The shambolic turn of events compelled Lemaître to step from the shadows, yet again: “This is the third time this season that I am forced to speak to the players. I told them that I should have done it only once, at a pinch two to congratulate them at the end of the season.”

Do you believe such chaos to be fabricated or true? How about a comparative dive into the size of each pack to understand that this win or bust Champions Cup affair is by no means a foregone conclusion.

“This challenge is very very different,” said Cullen. “The French league has lots of big name stars coming up against each other every week so it is a very very competitive competition and Toulon are one of the big spending teams over the last 10 years. Now they have a balance with some good young players from the region.”

Cullen is referring to Swan Rebbadj, a six foot eight inch blindside flanker who will need constant policing.

In the red corner, with an average weight of 117kg, representing France, Georgia, the Springboks and Italy, is a Toulon pack that boasts five lineout jumpers. In the blue corner, with an average weight of 113kg, representing Leinster schools, the sunny south east and Wales via Stillorgan, is a Leinster pack with the first challenge of this calibre since December’s 35-14 victory in Montpellier.

“I think Montpellier is the most relevant comparison in terms of size and the way they play,” Cullen added.

Not any of the Welsh or Scottish rabbles, and certainly not Munster. This marks the start of Leinster’s season, for real.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent