Leinster fighting for Champions Cup survival

Twenty years, 421 games, six titles.

Leinster fighting for Champions Cup survival

The story of the provinces in Europe is a long and, until recently, increasingly illustrious one but there is a strong argument that Leinster’s task in the Stade Felix Mayol tomorrow afternoon is right up there with the toughest ever undertaken by any of the quartet.

With just one point to show from their opening two jousts with Wasps and Bath, they have left themselves wedged behind the black ball and in need of a magical trick shot to fashion a result that would allow their hopes of qualification survive beyond the weekend.

Opposing them, unfortunately, is a side chasing a fourth straight European title. Victor Costello may have tagged Toulon as mercenaries this week but Mourad Boudjellal would surely argue that they have proven to be a dependable investment thus far.

The French giants have amassed 88 points in their last two games — 35 of them in Clermont of all places — since losing out to Wasps in their one and only Champions Cup tie to date, though Leo Cullen was understandably keen not to paint this as some forlorn assault on Everest.

“I almost feel it was more daunting going back 10-15 years ago when there was the sense of going into the unknown when you went away for some of these French trips,” said the Leinster coach yesterday. “I remember going to Toulouse before and that felt more daunting, I think.

“Of course, it’s daunting because they’ve got big names of world rugby. But there is a certain sense of familiarity. We’ve played against all these guys before. We’ve played in Stade Felix Mayol as well. It is a great debate. It’s hard to compare eras, isn’t it?”

It may be coincidence that Cullen cherry-picked Toulouse as an example of the challenges Leinster have faced on French soil before but it was there in 2006 when, under Michael Cheika, they truly announced themselves to the continent with a stunning quarter-final victory.

The epic defeat of Clermont in Bordeaux three years ago was probably even more notable given the strength of that opposition but even Cullen found himself speaking yesterday about the need for Leinster to resurrect the spirit and skill of those glory years.

They may lack some of the glitter of that era but this is still a team replete with hardened internationals and 10 of the starters this weekend took the first whistle when Toulon scraped home after extra-time in last season’s semi-final down the road in Marseille.

Cullen held up that contest as just one reason for optimism, though it was far from the only one.

“You could look back at the game against Wasps and we lost by 33 points (sic) but Toulon lost by a similar margin. The teams are close in this group and Wasps have stolen a pretty significant march on everyone else but we just need to focus on what we can focus on now.

“You look at the match-ups and the quality players they have and we’ve got really good quality players there as well. I have a lot of faith in the squad, a lot of faith in the players that are there so that gives me the confidence going into this game.”

Again, this is no step into the unknown. Toulon may have lost the likes of Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha and Cal Haymans, while welcoming Ma’a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen and Quade Cooper among others, but they are familiar to Leinster by now. Their ground, too.

Much was made of the fact that Leinster entered the Felix Mayol by the so-called tradesman’s entrance when they contested the quarter-final there two years ago, rather than ‘brave’ the traditional walk through the vociferous home support.

That was just one of the sticks used to beat them after they went down to a 29-14 defeat, though the mood of Cullen, a generally affable figure in press conferences with his penchant for laughs, darkened noticeably when that point was made again.

“I saw and heard what was documented at the time and it was completely inaccurate, as if we made the choice. We had a police escort which brought us to where we got dropped off. Somebody obviously made something up there, as if we’d turned the opportunity down.”

It remains to be seen which entrance they are directed towards this weekend — the host authorities seem to decide such logistical concerns — but it hardly matters

For Leinster only one statement of intent will do.

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