Ozer McMahon previews 5 key clashes in rugbys Heineken Cup Quarter Final clash between Toulan and Leinster.
There are nightmare scenarios and there is this. Matt O’Connor must be wondering what he has done in the past to merit such an unfortunate series of events during his first campaign as Leinster boss. He has followed in the footsteps of the most well liked and successful coach in Leinster history, lost the fulcrum of an exciting backline in Jonathan Sexton to Racing Metro, an underrated but valuable component of the team in Isa Nacewa to retirement, key ball carrier Sean O’Brien to a long term shoulder injury and has been drawn away to the defending Heineken Cup Champions Toulon in this seasons quarter final. O’Connor is coming into a franchise that is reaching the end of its collective peak with important players like Brian O’Driscoll, Gordan D’Arcy, Eoin Reddan, Jamie Heaslip, Leo Cullen and Mike Ross all into their 30’s. On average only 25% of away teams win in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup and Toulon have never been beaten at their Stade Felix Mayol in their 10 Heineken Cup encounters to date.
Leinster’s backs are to the wall but given their experience and talent they have a fighting chance of pulling off a surprise victory in the South of France. If they are to do so they must come out on top in these five clashes that will shape the game.
5. Rob Kearney v Delon Armitage
Rob Kearney has consistently showed this season he is Leinster’s most threatening attacker. He has brought a new level of attacking intent to his game this term and has often been the man to produce the goods when the Blues have needed it most. His aerial ability is also unrivalled and he is sure to be kept busy by a Toulon team with a propensity to kick. Down the other end of the pitch is former England international Delon Armitage, who is one of the most elusive runners left in the competition. Toulon play a very power orientated game and don’t utilise their back three as much as they should, but when the former London Irish player gets the ball in his hand he is constantly looking to make a break. He has crossed 14 times in 46 games for his French side which proves his attacking instincts haven’t been perturbed by his surroundings.
4. Jamie Heaslip v Steffon Armitage
Hardly the opponent the Leinster skipper would have been expecting to see at the back of the opposition scrum but due to a series of injuries Toulon have had to rejig their pack. Steffon Armitage has made his name as a dynamic and burly openside flanker. At 5 foot 9 and over 16 stone Armitage is surprisingly fast over the ground. There is no shortage of ball carriers in the Toulon pack so Armitage’s role at the breakdown will probably not vary too much despite the unusual number on his back. In tandem with Juan Smith, Armitage will present a real challenge in this area, while his explosive burst of speed off the back of a dominant scrum will pose Leinster problems they probably wouldn’t have been anticipating. The onus in the Leinster side will again be on Heaslip to carry in the absence of the barnstorming Sean O’Brien, while he will have to keep up his usual quota of “unseen work”. The workload and the expectation on Heaslip’s shoulders has increased but he will be looking to Shane Jennings and Rhys Ruddock to pitch again against a Toulon back row who could go to town if left unchecked.
3. Devin Toner v Danie Rossouw
The rise and rise of Devin Toner continues. After a good Six Nations, Toner handled himself well against Ireland captain Paul O’Connell in last weekend’s Pro12 derby. At 6 foot 10 inches, Toner towers above most second row opponents and that is his greatest strength but his game around the field is developing now too. Toulon are missing their first choice lock pairing in Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams and have pushed South African Danie Rossouw from the back row to the second row. More known as a Number 8 Rossouw has great versatility and is a more than competent lock forward. He is also a terrifically strong ball carrier and offers more in this department than any other second row could dream of. Toner won’t be able to match the Springbok World Cup winner in the loose but if he can gain an edge at the lineout it could be a catalyst for a Leinster victory.
2. Jimmy Gopperth v Johnny Wilkinson
Two former Newcastle Falcons come face to face on Sunday in what will be a pivotal match up. Wilkinson who was the darling of English rugby after his World Cup winning exertions in 2003 has gone on to become an even bigger hero in the South of France where he is absolutely idolised. While his kicking remains hugely effective, he is not flawless from the tee as he has missed eight penalties so far in this year’s tournament. Despite that he has still registered 73 points which is more than any other player. Given Toulon’s forward orientated game Wilkinson is the director who kicks the corners and the points to reward the forwards up front. Outside him Matt Giteau pulls the strings with the backs when they are called into action. Gopperth has made a career out of following in the footsteps of exalted company, firstly replacing Wilkinson at Newcastle and now Sexton at Leinster. There is no doubting his credentials and O’Connor has backed him for most of Leinster’s big European fixtures. He may have that off the cuff spark that Ian Madigan can provide but he is a solid operator who never lets his side down.
1. Cian Healy v Carl Hayman
The best loose head currently plying his trade in world rugby against one of the best tight heads of all time. There have been some concerns over Healy’s recent ankle troubles but this was a game the Clontarf man was never going to miss. He is central to Leinster’s hopes both in the scrum and also as a carrier and his physicality will be vital against a Toulon pack wedged with bulk and nous. 34 year old Hayman may be slightly past his prime but is still a destructive scrummager. Toulon take great pride in their set piece and have forced three penalty tries from scrums in Europe so far this season. Healy will have his work cut out for him against one of New Zealand’s best ever exports. It is unlikely that either player will last the full 80, so they will be giving it all to best their opponent and establish a platform for their respective sides while on the field.
Ozer McMahon – Pundit Arena
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