THIS LEINSTER TEAM have yet to enjoy the European domination that Toulon had at their height, but times have certainly changed since the Irish province suffered four consecutive defeats to the Top 14 side back in 2014 and 2015.
That was at the peak of the Mourad Boudjellal big-spending era in Toulon, when international stars like Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana, and Drew Mitchell helped them to three consecutive European titles.
We live in different times now. Boudjellal has left and Toulon haven’t won a trophy since 2015. They still have a couple of world-class star names in Eben Etzebeth and France captain Charles Ollivon, but they are no longer one of the heavyweights.
Leinster, meanwhile, have become annual contenders in Europe and have made winning the Pro14 look like something of a procession over the past four years.
Leo Cullen’s side do have a big budget and benefit from several of their key men being on IRFU central contracts but their route to success has been very different from that of the Toulon team of the mid-2010s. While Leinster have benefited from bringing in a few imports from abroad, their model has been about pushing through homegrown players.
Today’s team sheet for the sides’ Champions Cup round-of-16 clash at the RDS [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport] is the latest illustration of the fact. Every single one of the starting 15 is an Ireland international, with five more on the bench.
Left wing James Lowe is a New Zealander but now represents Ireland via the old three-year residency rule, while replacement second row Scott Fardy is the only other non-Ireland native in the Leinster 23. It’s a constant source of pride for the province.
Leinster used to motivate themselves to play Toulon by telling each other that it mattered more to them because they were from Leinster. It was a nice sentiment but mattered little against a team made up of the outstanding individuals Toulon possessed, all of them neatly aligned under then-director of rugby Bernard Laporte.
Johnny Sexton in action against Toulon in 2015. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Now, Leinster have some of the best individual players in Europe, extremely aligned under Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. Their pride in the jersey makes them even stronger.
Without Boudjellal – now the majority shareholder of Hyères FC in the fourth tier of French football – Toulon are a very different beast.
Their team today features Springbok World Cup winner Etzebeth, Italian veteran Sergio Parisse – now 37 but keen to play on next season – Fijian wing Masivesi Dakuwaqa, hard-scrummaging Georgian tighthead Beka Gigashvili, and former All Blacks back Rudi Wulf.
Australian playmaker Duncan Paia’aua is in the number 10 jersey but only because France-capped out-half Louis Carbonel is missing, a blow for the visitors to the RDS.
French internationals Ollivon, scrum-half Baptiste Serin, dynamic wing Gabin Villière, and blindside flanker/lock Swan Rebbadj are key men for Toulon, who currently sit seventh in the Top 14 – a fair reflection of their quality and form.
They will miss the suspended All Black legend Ma’a Nonu’s influence in midfield and while they will be confident about testing Leinster’s set-piece and making a dent with their size and power up front, Cullen’s men should have too much.
The fiery Toulon boss Patrice Collazo will have his men motivated but it’s hard to see past Leinster getting their first-ever European win over the French side.
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Leinster’s most recent Champions Cup knock-out game was a painful quarter-final defeat to Saracens, who are out of the picture now, so this evening’s encounter gives Leinster a chance to lay down a real European marker.
15. Hugo Keenan
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath
1. Cian Healy
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Ryan Baird
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Scott Fardy
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ross Byrne
23. Dave Kearney