90% OF MY head is going to a Toulon win this afternoon. They have a formidable home record, are hitting top form in the Top 14, have the confidence of having won the final in Dublin last year and Jonny Wilkinson is fit enough to start.
Just about everything is in Toulon’s favour — locks Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha are out — but this Leinster team went to Bordeaux in 2012 and beat Clermont in front of frenzied French support. If anyone can get the result today it is Leinster.
Toulon’s first choice locks are missing but, with the squad they have assembled in the south of France, the second and third choice options are all internationals. Hence, we have Danie Roussouw filling in and Jocelino Suta beside him.
The Clermont win is still fresh in the mind but we must not forget Leinster’s away form in this season’s competition — they out-muscled Ospreys, dazzled Northampton and came from behind to stun Castres, the Top 14 champions. If Leinster can take the game to Toulon like they did to Castres, after that difficult start, then they have a chance. They will want to be within a score at half-time. The longer they stay in the game, the more pressure will be on the hosts.
The pivotal battle — in a game increasingly decided at the breakdown — will be up front. Cian Healy has been in great form for Leinster and Ireland and he is pivotal to the Blues’ hopes today. He is up against New Zealander Carl Hayman, who is simply devastating. To say a tight-head is devastating is not the norm but that is how good Hayman is, in tight and out in the loose.
Ian Madigan will be frustrated at missing out on the start, at out-half, as he has not put a foot wrong whenever he has been given the chance. Jimmy Gopperth’s selection, however, takes nothing from the Leinster side and it shows Leinster will be looking to take the fight to their hosts while keeping it tight and not gifting them any needless possession.
Added to Gopperth starting at out-half we have another clear sign of Matt O’Connor’s thinking in Shane Jennings getting the nod at openside. He wants a workmanlike display from his forwards. This game is going to be won in the trenches and that is where Jennings excels. You have Leo Cullen, another man who is full of niggle, off the bench and Mike McCarthy starting in his place. McCarthy had a great game against Munster last weekend.
Rather than looking to absorb whatever Toulon can throw at them, Leinster will be looking to take the attack to them. It is definitely the game of the weekend and whoever gets through this you would have to back to win the tournament.
The other 10% of my head — the reckless part — is siding with my heart and a Leinster win. I have an old, romantic notion that Leinster can follow up on the example of Munster — and almost Ulster — to secure that Dublin semi final. We were denied the prospect of seeing three Irish sides in the last four but I hope Leinster can set up another all-Ireland semi with their old rivals.
@shanebyrneoffic played hooker for Leinster and Saracens, won 45 Test caps for Ireland between 2001 and 2005 and 4 Test appearances with The British & Irish Lions.