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'They're a team that we've struggled with' - Cullen wary of old foes Toulon

The Leinster boss has experienced defeat to Toulon as both a player and a coach.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Image: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

FRESH FROM WINNING a fourth straight Pro14 title last weekend, the Leinster machine rolls on as they welcome Toulon to the RDS for tomorrow’s Champions Cup round of 16 clash [KO 5.30, BT Sport].

For Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, it’s hard to not think back to the pain of past meetings. Back when Toulon were true European heavyweights, Leinster, and Cullen, often ended up as victims, losing all four of their previous encounters in this competition, which all took place between April 2014 and December 2015.

They are a different team now, currently languishing mid-table in the Top14 and unmercifully hammered 54-16 at Lyon last week, and as such Leinster will be viewed as favourites to advance.

Leinster and Toulon used to be two very different clubs, but that is slowly changing, with the Top14 outfit relying less on breaking the bank and looking to bring through their own homegrown talent instead.

Cullen raised a smile today when asked which approach works best for European competition – buying big, or investing in youth?

“Well they thought it worked pretty well when they won three European Cups (2013, 2014, 2015), so it’s hard to know,” he said.

“I think it depends on where you’re starting from. I think Toulon more recently have invested a lot more in their younger players and they’ve produced a lot of young talent. In that area of France they have a huge catchment area, so they do bring in a lot of their own local players, so they definitely have evolved over the course of time.

“Their model, when they were hugely successful, they had an unbelievable roster of players.

“I guess there were a good few clubs in France in particular that tried to replicate that model, so then it became very competitive for some of those marquee players.

“But they were definitely ahead of their time in terms of what they did and it was amazing. Obviously I experienced that as a player, my last game in this competition was losing a quarter-final away against Toulon (2014), my first year coaching (2015, forwards coach) we lost that semi-final away in Marseille that went to extra-time, when Bryan Habana picked off that intercept pass.

“And even in my first year here as a head coach (2015), we lost back-to-back in the pool games in December, so they’re a team that we’ve struggled with in recent years in the competition, maybe not so recently, but you understand what I mean.

“When you see their squad still, the likes of (Eben) Etzebeth in the forwards, (Sergio) Parisse, the experience that those guys have at the very highest level. 

“They have a number of guys in the French squad at the moment, obviously (Jean-Baptiste) Gros, (Baptiste) Serin at 9, (Romain) Taofifenua in the second row, (Swan) Rabbadj who can play in the second row as well, (Gabin) Villière I see is back and is someone who has come through a very unorthodox route, played in the lower leagues in France with Rouen before he got brought into the Toulon squad.

“So they have a bit of a mix of everything, really.”

Cullen was speaking shortly after naming his team for the game, making four changes from the Pro14 final win against Munster.

Johnny Sexton is fit to start after passing his return to play protocols and James Lowe returns on the wing to make just his third Leinster appearance of the season, while Tadhg Furlong and Ryan Baird come into the pack. 

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“It’s just trying to get the balance over the course of the couple of weeks, people coming back in from national camp as well, off the back of the England game,” Cullen said.

“That’s the great thing at this time of year, you go from a final to a last 16 knockout game, a bit more hype than usual with only two pool games, and only one for some teams. It’s been incredibly unusual but we’re into the serious stuff and it means a lot to us and obviously Toulon have a very proud record in this as well.

“It’s an amazing challenge for us and I’m looking forward to getting going again.”

 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Ciarán Kennedy

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