Leinster happy to play role of underdog to crack Toulon

Leo Cullen believes Leinster’s surprise defeat of Munster in the classic 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park can serve as a template as the province contemplates the prospect of facing Toulon at the same stage in Marseille.

Leinster happy to play role of underdog to crack Toulon

As is the case this Sunday, the eastern province was written off in many quarters ahead of that historic meeting at GAA HQ. After all, Munster were holders and two-time winners, Leinster the perennial underachievers.

The perceived gap between the pair was only deepened by Munster’s evisceration of Ospreys in the last eight hours before Leinster scratched out a 6-5 win against Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop. Few need reminding as to what happened next.

If anything, the scale of the climb presenting itself now is even greater. Toulon have won the last two European Cups and are Top 14 champions while Leinster’s domestic season imploded last weekend with defeat away to the Dragons.

So far, so glum, then.

“Leinster have been in this position before where we were really struggling to deliver the goods at this tail end of the season when it came to the knockout games, quarters or semis,” said Cullen who is now forwards coach.

“I just think back to 2009 where going into that semi-final — and I was doing the press beforehand — no-one gave us a chance. It’s a very similar feeling to what it is today and I think guys appreciate that.”

That was, in hindsight, a Leinster team on the up. The present bunch is seemingly one intent on sliding back down. They are, in any case, far from the side that won the last time they played a European semi-final on French soil.

That was in 2012, when Clermont’s Wesley Fofana dropped a ball when over Leinster’s try line in injury-time and that Leinster still had Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Brad Thorn and Cullen himself in the ranks.

Toulon, on the other hand, have gone from strength to strength, so much so Cullen made the point their resources and pulling power meant the two sides were not competing on “a level playing field”.

Sean Cronin was similarly blunt when assessing the challenge posed by Bernard Laporte’s League of Nations select. “Awesome” was the choice of word the hooker reached for, though this is a week where Leinster must also look inward.

That loss in Newport last Sunday has somehow elevated the importance of this Rugby Champions Cup clash given Matt O’Connor’s side now require an unlikely chain of results to deliver a play-off spot.

There is, therefore, only one door left open marked ‘redemption’ for a club that has underperformed regardless of issues such as injuries or the availability of international players. This is, as Cronin put it, backs-to-the-walls stuff.

“There’s no point beating around the bush, throwing out stuff. It is in the balance. It’s a massive game in terms of our season. It is totally out of our hands in terms of the play-offs in the league. This is probably do-or-die for us this weekend.”

To that end, the injury missives aren’t bad.

Aussie lock Kane Douglas is likely to miss out with ongoing back issues but Cian Healy, Ian Madigan, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss and Shane Jennings are all over minor knocks.

Whatever the personnel, this represents the toughest gig in European rugby right now, though Leinster insist the lessons of last year’s quarter-final defeat to Toulon at Stade Felix Mayol have been learned.

Chief among them, it seems, has been the destruction wrought that day by the likes of Steffon Armitage against what appeared to be a strangely passive Leinster side at the breakdown.

“They have a very shrewd coach as well who understands the importance of certain things,” said Cullen. “The thing that sets them apart over the last number of years is how aggressive they are at the breakdown. They flood bodies into that area.

“How they actually clamp guys into the space is questionable at times and how much release they get from their tackler who allows some of their players to get into their poach position to get on the ball.”

Leinster would be wise to follow suit.

This is one they have to win by hook or by crook.

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