Leinster go into today’s semi-final against Toulon with very little expected of them. But this is when they are most dangerous, writes Brian Barry, who offers five reasons why he believes Leinster can deliver one of the great European upsets.
Jimmy Gopperth To Hold His Own
Perhaps it is an area of weakness in Matt O’Connor’s side, as the return of Jonny Sexton is impatiently awaited. Jimmy Gopperth has been solid, but nothing more, and has not instilled any great confidence that he can lead Leinster to European glory. Against Bath in the quarter-final, George Ford enjoyed a great degree of dominance over the Kiwi.
However, in Frederic Michalak, Toulon do not boast a particularly top-class 10 themselves. Irish fans are well aware of the enigmatic 32 year-old, and that most of the time, he is no world-beater.
Leinster can hope that Gopperth can more that hold his own against the former French international.
Improving Leinster Scrum
Rugby fans around Europe are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how this Leinster scrum are traveling to the South of France expecting to enjoy superiority at the set-pice. Just four months ago, they were simply demolished in The Stoop; playing off the back foot and losing ground, if not a penalty, on every occasion.
Christmas is over, and we are now into April. Mike Ross and the returning Cian Healy were imperious against Bath, and have ready replacements in Marty Moore and Jack McGrath, who would walk onto most sides around the continent themselves. Somewhere during the Six Nations, these props clicked.
The Leinster scrum is no longer the achilles heal, but a weapon, and will rise to the challenge of Xavier Chiocci and Carl Hayman.
World Class Back-Row
Jordi Murphy, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. Is there a better back-row at any club in the World?
The three offer intensity and guile at the break-down, while in the loose, they will punch holes. However, with Heaslip leading the way, they go into contact on their own terms. This is perhaps an under-appreciated art. While bigger Number 8s, such as Billy Vunipola, are lauded for their ball-carrying power, the focus of Heaslip on ball retention is a far greater skill.
The fact that an Irish international in Rhys Ruddock is out injured, and a player of Dominic Ryan’s quality can still be introduced from the bench says it all.
The absence of Steffon Armitage in the Toulon starting XV is all the more reason for Leinster optimism.
Leinster Have European Pedigree In Spades
All the talk is around Toulon’s drive for a third consecutive title. Very few outside of Ireland are giving Leinster a prayer, while even Brian O’Driscoll has tipped the French outfit.
But this Leinster side are not to be underestimated. Many of the side who won three European titles in four seasons are still in the prime of their careers.
‘The opposition are too good.’ ‘It is an impossible task.’ Sound familiar?
This Leinster side have done it time and time again, and thrived on the tag of underdogs.
The Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster in 2009. Half-time in the 2011 Final against Northampton. The 2012 semi-final away to Clermont. Tell Leinster it is impossible and they will make it possible.
Cliché it may be, but write them off at your peril. Very few are giving the province a chance today, and that is when they are at their most dangerous.
Is This Really A Home Game For Toulon?
As home advantage in the semi-final does not actually extend to your home stadium, Toulon elected the game to be played in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. While it stood to reason that they wished the game to be held in a 67,000 seater stadium, the plan backfired badly, as a mere 40,000 are expected at the game. Ultimately, the French giants may have been better served holding it in a more modest stadium, where a genuinely intimidating atmosphere would be created.
With 27,000 empty seats, and a loud traveling support, this will not seem like a home game for Toulon, and makes the task ahead that bit less daunting for Leinster.
Prediction: If Ian Madigan makes his kicks, Leinster will be there or thereabouts after 80 minutes.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.