Planet Rugby

Preview: Toulon v Leinster

03rd April 2014 15:44

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Greats: Wilkinson and O'Driscoll

Sunday's only Heineken Cup quarter-final stands in isolation because it's the best of an outstanding bunch, as Toulon host Leinster.

The two teams together have lifted the Heineken Cup four times in the last five seasons - an outstanding record for the biggest of fixtures.

Sitting down and going through this weekend's four matches, it also feels like the game with the highest likelihood of an away win.

That might seem like a disservice to Toulon, who are champions after all, but it shouldn't be. Bernard Laporte's circus have juggled the usual amount of off-field distractions this season that come with the status of being Europe's best team.

Toulon have not been perfect by any stretch, nestled into a congested hunt for the playoffs in the Top 14 with 13 wins from 23 matches, but at times winning away in the French league doesn't even seem to be considered.

That said, they cruised through their Heineken Cup group despite a bizarre blip in Cardiff against the Blues. Recently in the Top 14 they have won five of their last six matches, banishing the January blip that saw them lose at home to Grenoble and watch their unbeaten record at the Stade Felix Mayol of 363 days disappear.

Grenoble's 22-21 victory was the moment when Toulon asked where their season was going. All great teams have those moments, even with a Heineken Cup quarter-final at home secured. For all the delight of winning in Dublin last year, the Top 14 title still eludes Mourad Boudjellal's galacticos.

There is also a ticking clock on many of the players' careers, most notably of course Jonny Wilkinson's.

Wilkinson has one European title to Brian O'Driscoll's three, but only one of them will still be in the running to be Europe's best one last time come Monday.

Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams don't make this game due to injury, but Toulon's pack won't lack for Test caps or bite. Juan Smith and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe have been two of the best flankers in world rugby over the last decade, when fit.

Supply your squad with enough quality and gamebreakers will crop up everywhere. Wilkinson was rested for last weekend's 32-28 win over Toulouse, another Heineken Cup quarter-finalist, with both teams rolling out their strongest sides. Frédéric Michalak isn't even starting against Leinster, but his touch of genius sparked Maxime Mermoz's try against Toulouse.

In many ways it was perfect warm-up at home against quality opposition, but it was held at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. Toulon could have hosted Leinster in the bigger ground, but they would lose the intimacy of the Mayol.

Having witnessed a match in that venue, it's less a stadium and more a furious cauldron of noise and intimidation. It's a compliment to Leinster that Toulon feel the need to for maximum dominance off the field to achieve the win on it.

In terms of global pedigree over the last few years however, Leinster and the Chiefs in Super Rugby stand alone.

Even with Joe Schmidt now in charge of Ireland and replaced by Matt O'Connor, the boys in blue continue to thrill.

11 of the starting XV were part of the Ireland team that lifted the Six Nations trophy in Paris less than a month ago.

That's why an away victory in France is possible. It's the biggest test in the post-Sexton era for Leinster, right up there with their away trip to Clermont in the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final.

Perhaps that's the reason why Leinster have opted for the experience of fly-half Jimmy Gopperth instead of Ian Madigan, despite the young Irish player shining recently against Munster.

Neither number ten has huge experience in this tournament but that doesn't matter when they look around and see Eoin Reddan, Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll. That trio have all picked up three Heineken Cup titles, Reddan once with Wasps, and live and breathe this competition.

The same goes for Cian Healy, who if possible has become an even better player this season than before the ankle injury that ruled him out of the Lions tour. Healy starts for the 125th time in Leinster colours.

Should Leinster's tight five fail to hold parity, then the Irish province have little hope. Fortunately their unit, plus the replacements, are firing this season. Mike McCarthy didn't get a look-in during the Six Nations but is fearsome brute of a second-row. Devin Toner was one of the most underrated players in Ireland's title triumph.

Leinster just have all the ingredients when it comes to talent and experience. The only question is do they have enough to take down Jonny and co. in the baying pit that is the Mayol? Of the other teams in the last eight, they are the only one you would back to go there and win.

Ones to Watch:

For Toulon: The clock is winding down on Jonny Wilkinson's career and a second Heineken Cup title would fit well along with his list of accolades. Last season when it came to the quarter-finals, Wilkinson carried Toulon through the knockout stages against Leicester and Saracens before his team-mates helped him out in the final. Toulon will seek similar inspiration from their captain this time round, who is also the tournament's top points scorer so far this season with 73.

For Leinster: The other great elder statesman. Brian O'Driscoll's Six Nations ended in fairytale fashion with his second title, this time in Paris. He'll hope that isn't the only result on French soil that goes his way this season, although the task of facing Toulon might be harder than Philippe Saint-André's disjointed Bleus. When great moments are needed he always seems to be present. Worth keeping an eye on.

Head-to-Head:

At the back of the packs sit two key influencers for both sides. Steffon Armitage remains one of Europe's best at the breakdown and is working well in tandem with Smith and Lobbe as Toulon's first-choice back row unit. He has won 13 turnovers already in Europe this season.

The Englishman has so much to offer his country but never will while he remains in the Top 14. But that's ok, because Toulon are a special club and one that have brought the best out of Armitage in his time there. Leinster no longer just turn to Jamie Heaslip for moments of magic, but for leadership. Enjoying a fine season and impressing in the Six Nations, they need him carrying at his best and to front up to the physical challenge Toulon will bring in abundance.

Prediction: As previously stated, if any side is going to win away at Toulon in the knockout stages, then it's Leinster with all of their pedigree. But even then that might not be enough, given Toulon have never lost at home in the Heineken Cup. If Toulon get going early on then there will be no looking back. Toulon by five.

The teams:

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 David Smith, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Sebastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Steffon Armitage, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Jocelino Suta, 4 Danie Roussouw, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Xavier Choicci
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Florian Fresia, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Virgile Bruni, 20 Bryan Habana, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Konstantine Mikautadze

Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Leo Cullen, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Zane Kirchner

Date: Sunday, April 7
Venue: Stade Felix Mayol, Toulon
Kickoff: 17:30 (local, 16:30)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Greg Garner (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by Ben Coles

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