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Toulon aren't pretty, but reap the benefit

By Tony Ward

Published 22/12/2015

Tou good: Toulon’s Juan Smith celebrates his try against Leinster with Delon Armitage, Steffon Armitage and Drew Mitchell at the Aviva Stadium
Tou good: Toulon’s Juan Smith celebrates his try against Leinster with Delon Armitage, Steffon Armitage and Drew Mitchell at the Aviva Stadium

Where there's life there's hope and despite two defeats from three it is Leinster alone definitively out of this season's European Champions Cup.

For Ulster, on the back of a superb win in Toulouse, and for Munster, by way of a much more substantial losing performance at Welford Road, the lure of the premier competition at least extends into the New Year.

Champion teams soak up pressure and come back even stronger when the chips are down - think Kilkenny over Galway in this year's All-Ireland final, and for the Cats back in September read Toulon now. It cost a fair heap of Euro to put the Toulon All Stars in place but it shows.

And whatever else Bernard Laporte, Diego Dominguez and the rest of the coaching team on the Cote D'Azur may be accused of, it sure ain't variety. They replace like with like. Big powerful men like Mamuka Gorgodze and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe replace big powerful men as route one rugby reinforces route one rugby.

Of course they have the wherewithal to apply the icing, specifically through Drew Mitchell and Bryan Habana, but if ever the age old adage of 'forwards winning games leaving backs to determine the damage' applied it is through this expensively assembled freak machine now.

I hope they don't make it four in a row but if they do so what? Even if they win it for the next 10 years does it really matter in terms of achievement?

Call me old school here but I just don't get it. That said, in order to compete we are going to have to up the financial ante to a manageable degree with the proposed route to that ambition well flogged at this stage.

But back to the finer detail of this latest encounter. For 40 minutes at the Aviva on Saturday, Leinster played with a vibrancy previously lacking. They were much more positive, far more accurate, showing greater urgency with quicker line-speed and a much better tailored game-plan.

Kicking in behind, generally long and pressing high up the pitch proved extremely bountiful in that opening half.

Then came the squeeze as the mean machine sucked the life out of the three-time champions in the second period.

There are many ways to skin a cat but Toulon do relentless power through pure physicality better than any other unit on planet rugby.

It ain't pretty but it is undeniably successful and almost impossible to repel, other than meeting and beating like with like, but when the bench is even stronger than those they replace, what chance is there?

For Munster, the improvement from Thomond seven days before was every bit as marked. As I expected, Ian Keatley showed much moral courage given his experience of the week before but still missed two vital penalties at crucial stages in the contest that he knows he should have nailed. I feel for him in his current plight but only he and he alone can work his way through.

The promising Rory Scannell and injury-stricken Tyler Bleyendaal make for obvious alternatives at ten but as of now a confident Keatley (and I emphasise that word confident greatly) is the most complete playmaker of the three. Bear in mind he was deemed Ireland's number one out-half by Joe Schmidt in Rome for the Six Nations opener last February. He more than justified that selection on the day but has fallen off since.

With Jonathan Sexton working his way through his own gremlins it is Paddy Jackson the form Irish Number 10 at this point in time.

Jackson was again at the heart of another uplifting performance for Ulster and Irish rugby. Thirty six points less in the difference a week on against Toulouse, but a performance every bit as substantial given the context made it another historic day.

Toulouse, much like Leinster and Munster, have drifted a long way from their deeds of the past yet to nil them one week and then a week later beat them on their own patch takes some doing.

Saracens will walk the Pool but a place in the last eight is not beyond the bounds of possibility and that in itself would make for some achievement given the doom and gloom surrounding Irish rugby post-Argentina.

Either way I am delighted for Les Kiss; the difference his arrival is already making at the Kingspan is marked.

Belfast Telegraph

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