Leinster may come close, but not close enough against Toulon

This may be the Rugby Champions Cup’s inaugural season, but the feeling this weekend, as the two semi-finals are contested on French soil, is one of familiarity, given the identities of the four clubs involved.

Leinster may come close, but not close enough against Toulon

Clermont, Saracens and Toulon all made it this far 12 months ago, when the tournament was still known as the Heineken Cup, and even the presence of Leinster rather than Munster this time hardly makes for a seminal shift in the grand scheme of things.

Once again, therefore, we are left with one province flying the flag for Ireland and the PRO12 amidst three of the mega-clubs for whom the new competition and enlarged TV deal seemed to be tailor-made.

The budgets of the Anglo-French brigade are far beyond anything Leinster can muster and the realisation the Irish contenders are rated 11-point outsiders by some bookmakers only adds to the ‘David versus Goliaths’ impression.

Even some of the club’s most cherished alumni, the likes of Shane Horgan and Bernard Jackman, admit the three-time winners have travelled to the Cote d’Azur this week on something of a wing and a prayer. They have plenty evidence on their side.

Matt O’Connor’s squad arrive in France with a dismal recent record in the PRO12 where even a play-off place is likely to prove beyond them. Most aspects of their game have been held up unfavourably to the light in recent weeks. Their defence has been appalling of late with the 26 missed tackles against Bath in the nervy Champions Cup quarter-final three weeks ago an obvious flashing light as they face into a contest against the reigning French and European champions.

Their attack hasn’t been much better. Tries in Europe — aside from the seven they claimed against a disinterested Castres in January — have been rarer than hen’s teeth and memories of their former offensive swagger dim more and more.

O’Connor has drafted back in a dozen of his biggest names after last week’s defeat to the Dragons in Wales, though the reality is that the amount of collective game time banked in a blue shirt this calendar year has been negligible.

Facing them is a Toulon side currently established at the summit of the Top 14 table, one which has been able to utilise its vast reserves of international talent throughout the Six Nations and oozes quality and experience.

That said, Steffon Armitage, the man who, along with Matthieu Bastareaud, did so much damage at the breakdown when Leinster lost to Toulon in last year’s quarter-final at Stade Felix Mayol, has only been deemed fit enough to start on the bench.

A boost, clearly, although the fact that the visiting back row will still have to deal with Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Chris Masoe somewhat dilutes any cheer from the team announcement.

There was further unfavourable news in confirmation Leigh Halfpenny’s shoulder will not prevent him starting. The Welshman will thus provide a long-range kicking option that played its part in tormenting Leinster 12 months ago.

Man for man, this Toulon team is better than Leinster, especially in the half-backs what with a resurgent Frederick Michalak at 10, and in the second row where Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams provide a forbidding presence. Or so you would think.

Toulon’s lineout is ranked third worst in the Top 14 this year, their defence has leaked six tries in the last two games and Michalak’s suspect big-game temperament will surely be tested by the experienced visitors.

Therein lies the rub.

Leinster, on the back of all the accumulated facts, should have no right to expect anything other than defeat and yet there are enough provisos to be found to make this contest anything but a foregone conclusion.

O’Connor and co. will surely be forewarned and forearmed by last year’s defeat when they soaked up too many tackles and allowed Toulon claim an early momentum and advantage, neither of which was relinquished.

Sean O’Brien’s only appearance that day was during the warm-up, but his inclusion here, allied to Steffon Armitage’s reduced role, should reduce the gap at the breakdown where Wayne Barnes’ interpretation will be key.

Fifteen of Leinster’s 23 featured three years ago when Joe Schmidt’s side edged past Clermont at this same stage in Bordeaux.

Fourteen of this squad played some role for Ireland as the Six Nations was retained. That is ample big-game experience and it shouldn’t be forgotten that O’Connor’s Leinster have delivered big before: in December 2013 when they routed Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens and last May when defeating Glasgow in the PRO12 final.

Nothing like that has been seen since, of course, and 11 months is a long time to wait for a performance of note. Leinster may come close to bridging that gap, but even then it is unlikely to be enough.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

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