Both Neil Doak and Anthony Foley have railed against popular opinion by claiming Leinster can account for the champions in Marseille in the Rugby Champions Cup semi-final but, in fairness, few men know better what that takes.
Munster came up just short against Bernard Laporte’s side in the semi-final last year - and in the same Stade Velodrome that will host this latest semi-final - despite the widespread belief pre-match that they would do well to avoid a punishing defeat.
“I just think a team like Leinster, at their stage, have enough to beat Toulon over there in a neutral venue on a lovely sunny day,” said Foley, who stressed the need for the visiting side to establish some control and, if possible, an early lead on the scoreboard.
Doak’s Ulster faced the Top 14 giants in the pool stages this year, losing 13-23 in Belfast in round two and then conceding 60 points in round five, by which point the province was all but eliminated and struggling with injuries.
The Ulster coach yesterday preached the need for O’Connor’s side to maintain concentration for the full 80 minutes and pointed out his side left over 20 points behind them at the Stade Felix Mayol when the game was still a contest.
“If they’re on song, they’re a hard team to beat. You just have to disrupt them and not give them quality ball,” he explained. “Just harass them. Nobody likes pressure in your face.
“No matter how good a player you are, if you’re harassed and are continually put under pressure then your skill sets break down and teams can capitalise on that.”
Much has been made of the disparity in financial resources between the two protagonists this weekend, but the IRFU’s player welfare system – though recognised for its many benefits – hasn’t helped Leinster in their efforts this season.
“Before last weekend, in real terms, 19 of our squad have played full international rugby for Ireland between November and the Six Nations,” said Leinster manager Guy Easterby. “Of those 19 players, they have on average played just over six Pro12 games this season out of 18. That clearly is an issue.”
This wasn’t a case of Leinster grumbling, rather one of Easterby responding to a specific question on the player management issue and its effects, and he was quick to add the province’s performances simply “haven’t been good enough” this season. It remains to be seen if the IRFU agrees to adopt a more flexible approach in the seasons to come, especially in light of the more restricted European club window which leaves little time for reintegration post-Six Nations.
“As long as people are prepared to have discussions, we can make it a working format that isn’t detrimental to anyone moving forward and give us as provinces the best chance,” said Easterby. At the end of the day, the national team is hugely important. It’s the pinnacle of any rugby player’s career and we want to be able to have as many players playing for Ireland as possible.”
It’s been a far from ideal lead-in for Leinster, then, whose PRO12 play-off hopes went south with defeat to the Dragons last Sunday, but Rory Best put it best of all when attempting to put their current situation in context yesterday.
“They’re still in a European semi-final,” said the Ulster hooker, “and there’s a lot of teams in our league who would gladly swap (where they are) to be in a European semi-final with a chance of making the final.”