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Leinster have experience to topple the mighty Toulon

By Michael Sadlier

It being Leinster, the line of questioning quickly veered off the primary purpose which had brought Kevin McLaughlin to the Kingspan Stadium in the first place.

The run-in for the Guinness PRO12, and its Belfast final, which he was there to promote, was certainly given more than a nod but the southern province's Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday in France against the mighty Toulon remained very much top of the agenda.

And with the heat ratcheting up on Leinster to deliver in both Europe and domestically - their bid to retain the PRO12 crown is looking vulnerable with them needing a win at Ulster tomorrow week to stay in the hunt - McLaughlin came out fighting regarding what needs to be done at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday.

"We know on our day we can beat them," McLaughlin said of Toulon, though he will play no part as he has been out since undergoing surgery following last December's Connacht game.

"Obviously we're going to give it everything," the back row forward, who can also play second row, said before adding, "It's just about producing the performance on the day and then hopefully things will go our way."

But there is no avoiding the pressure which coach Matt O'Connor is under at a province where success is now demanded and should Leinster fall to back-to-back champions Toulon then, just five days later, they simply must come away from the Kingspan with a victory in the PRO12 or their season looks gone.

"We're 80 minutes away from the European final but we also know that in the back of our minds we've got to come here (to the Kingspan) and win to keep our season alive," the 30-year-old Ireland international said before quickly getting back to Europe.

"There has been a lot of tension around the squad this week which is a good sign.

"We realise there are chinks in Toulon's armour and we know that they are probably the most experienced squad in Europe.

"But we've got a lot of big game players too and we know the core of our team is very experienced."

Leinster lost 29-14 at Toulon in last season's European quarter-final and McLaughlin was adamant that the squad have absorbed a useful lesson from that experience while also pointing out that not having the game at their intimidating Stade Felix Mayol home could also be turned to the province's advantage.

"We've got to play close to the perfect game if we're going to win in France," he stated.

"But we learnt a lot from last year. We learnt that if you keep running into big men you're going to end up being turned over.

"We have to be a bit smarter in the way we play them and try and up the tempo a bit. We've got to play away from their strengths.

"We've watched footage and teams do score tries against them and we know that we missed too many tackles against Bath (in the quarter-finals) and if you do that against Toulon they'll be lethal.

"It's also not a home game for them, it's a huge stadium and one of the advantages they have in their home ground is that it is relatively small and is right on top of the pitch and the noise is incredible. This will be very different and will hopefully play into our hands."

While McLaughlin was, understandably, optimistic about Leinster's chances, Ulster captain Rory Best also reckoned Leinster have a chance of an upset, but only if they put the star-studded Toulon side under intense pressure.

"I've just a bit of a feeling that Leinster could win," said Best. "A lot of people have written them off but when you watch Toulon in detail they have flattered to deceive a little bit this season in some of their performances.

"Steffon Armitage is the heartbeat of their team but Leinster have a pretty good back row as well and they can put the shackles on him which Seanie (O'Brien) is more than capable of doing.

"You can't let Toulon get ahead though," he added.

"Leinster must get the three, six and nine-point start to put the pressure on and see how their stars react.

"You've got to ask questions of their ethos and how far they're willing to go. Leinster will go to the 84th minute to win, but will Toulon?"

Leinster know they simply must pose this question.

Stuart McCloskey will start for the Ulster Ravens today when they meet a strong Munster A side in a friendly at Rifle Park, Banbridge (kick-off 5.00pm).

Belfast Telegraph


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