Devin Toner says Leinster are bubbling to the boil at just the right time as they prepare to host moneybags Montpellier in the RDS this Saturday.
The province defeated rivals Munster in the Guinness PRO14 last Saturday at Aviva Stadium — the perfect warm-up for this weekend’s must-win Champions Cup opener.
The French outfit were hammered in Dublin last season, but have since appointed a new head coach in Vern Cotter and added three world class talents in Ruan Pienaar, Louis Picamoles and Aaron Cruden. They’ve enjoyed a solid start to the Top14, while Leinster have been winning but far from convincing in their opening six games.
Defeat to the Cheetahs in South Africa is the sole loss so far, but wins over Cardiff and Edinburgh in the RDS in recent weeks were not up to the standards Leo Cullen demands from his men.
But last Saturday’s 23-17 win over Munster was a step up in quality, and a perfectly timed one according to Toner.
“Everyone’s really happy,” Toner said. “It’s amazing the difference in the mood around the place, even compared to just last week.
“I know we won, but how we won it wasn’t great. But it’s crazy the difference in mood this week. There’s huge enthusiasm, we’re raring to go.
“We were really happy with how things went, overall, the lineout improved, we knew we needed to do so after the Edinburgh game where things didn’t go too well there.
“It’s a huge game in itself, in the Aviva, but it’s really good to see how you’re progressing. We identified what we needed to get right after the Edinburgh game, we did that, and hopefully now we can kick on from that.”
Montpellier are many people’s dark horses to win the tournament this season, with billionaire owner Mohed Altrad continuing to splash the cash as the French side look to taste success in Europe.
Picamoles was one of the best back-rowers in the Aviva Premiership last season, while Ruan Pienaar has a World Cup winner’s medal in his pocket from his time as a Springbok scrum-half.
Then there’s Aaron Cruden, the New Zealand out-half, who many believe should be still at home playing for the All Blacks, and pushing Beauden Barrett all the way.
“I’ve had a bit of a look myself at Montpellier, they’re a similar enough team to last year but their 8, 9, 10 axis is going to be new to them,” Toner said.
“From a forward’s point of view, they’ve a massive pack, so it’s a massive test for us.
“We did pretty well to get a losing bonus point away last season and in the RDS we had a good game, but they had an early red card that didn’t help them that much.
“I think in the RDS we got our defence right, we got in their faces, and capitalised on that.
“Everyone’s talking about how big they are, how physical they are and how they’re going to bludgeon us again, but once we get our accuracy right at setpiece, get our roles right and get our heads on, we’ll put it up against them, and we’ll be alright.
“If we keep hold of the ball we’ll be doing well to not give them a chance to counter, as that’s one of their strengths.
“Pienaar is really smart identifying space, they’ve got Nemani Nadolo on the wing too, so we need to keep hold of the ball.”
Toner expects Nathan Hines, his former teammate and now Montpellier coach, to pass on some insights to his new club, and expects to see the French players mimic the Scots’ desire for hard work.
“He’ll have something in the bag, whether it’s a move around the front or the back of the lineout, he’ll have an insight into how I call lineouts too, and tell them how to be up against us, that’s something I’ll have to have in the back of my head,” he said.
“He was like Leo [Cullen] as a player, he was naturally like a coach — always speaking up in meetings, driving the front five ethos of getting in the opposition’s face, and he’ll probably be telling them that this week, to get in our face, and disrupt us.”
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