WITH Leinster’s semi-final defeat in Toulouse last season came the stark realisation that the loss owed more to the sheer power and technical ability of the French front five than the presence of so many stellar names in the back line.
Leinster were blown away at scrum time, struggled to put any pressure on the home lineout and also suffered in the contact area. Twelve months on and there is a real expectation that Leinster will compete better in all of those areas.
To win today’s Heineken Cup semi-final, this simply has to happen. Despite still featuring three of the front five blitzed in the south of France last May, Leinster are now a far more effective unit.
For starters, Cian Healy has another full season of Test rugby behind him.
Last year his young frame was knackered by the end of the season and he paid a heavy price against the experienced Benoit Lecouls.
This time around, Lecouls is out with a neck injury but the gargantuan Census Johnston steps in to pose another formidable challenge.
Healy has a far better scrummaging unit surrounding him, not least in the front row where Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss were both surplus to requirements last year. They have made a massive difference this season.
In addition, Nathan Hines, in his second season with Leinster, has become far more influential and will match the abrasive qualities of Patricio Albacete and Yoann Maestri.
The other key factor is that Leinster can now match Toulouse’s impact off the bench in the front row, with the facility to call on Stan Wright and Heinke Van Der Merwe to close out the game if the occasion requires.
Leinster were badly exposed in the tight exchanges at this stage last season. Parity is their minimum expectation today.
TOULOUSE stand alone in the pantheon of European greats with four Heineken Cup titles and two other final appearances.
For a long period in this tournament, they’ve enjoyed a psychological advantage over most sides, with many beaten before they took to the field. Perhaps it is a sign of decline that they have lost a bit of that invincibility, especially away from home, where they’ve looked quite ordinary at times.
Leinster will not suffer any inferiority complex when they step out onto the Aviva turf this afternoon; if anything it’s the Toulouse contingent who could well be a little starstruck when they look at their new surroundings, with upward of 45,000 baying Leinster fans facing them.
Leinster remain the only team to defeat Toulouse on their home patch in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup (Munster’s semi-final win in 2000 was in Bordeaux), and despite the defeat there at this stage last season, Leinster will have no inhibitions today. That is key.
To beat Toulouse, you have to have total belief in your ability to do so before kick-off. Leinster will look around their dressing room and take strength from the fact that the additions of Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien and Jonny Sexton, who missed last year’s semi-final due to injury, make them a better side this time out. Of equal importance, Toulouse will have noted the ease with which Leinster disposed of Clermont Auvergne and Racing when they travelled to Dublin earlier in the season. That offers Leinster a crucial psychological edge.
THE fulcrum of the Leinster side can be found in midfield where the combination of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy direct the team, both in attack and defence.
At this stage, their understanding is telepathic and everyone else in the Leinster back line feeds off the pairing. It does not take much analysis therefore from the opposition to recognise that if you can stop the play-making ability of that duo and negate their influence in defence, you are well on the road to success.
Many have tried but few, at this level, have succeeded. One team that has, however, is Toulouse. They recognised the influence in last year’s semi-final, and set out to suppress it. It helps when your own midfield pairing is as gifted, experienced and powerful as Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz.
In addition, because of the power of the Toulouse pack, Guy Noves also had the luxury of withdrawing Thierry Dusautoir to supplement his centre pairing and run at the Leinster midfield.
It didn’t help the Leinster cause that Toulouse were very comfortable up front and in a position to produce a stream of quick ball.
Twelve months on, and the great Jauzion, who has enjoyed many a battle with D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, is not even starting — Noves has again opted for a pairing of Fritz and long-time full-back Clement Poitrenaud.
The Leinster pairing will be pleased to face that combination and a little surprised to see Jauzion once again confined to bench duty along with another of last year’s tormenters, Dusautoir. That offers Leinster a distinct advantage in a crucial area of the field.