Friday, 12 December 2014

European Champions Cup Preview - Toulon v Leicester Tigers

I have a confession to make.  This was never going to be my game of the week originally – the honour was going to go to Leinster v Harlequins, another cracker which holds a not unsubstantial amount of spice – but recent events had changed my mind.  On Sunday evening, I was already torn after we had seen a phenomenal 80 minutes of brutal physicality and passion at Welford Road, but my mind was made up shortly after following a certain monologue by Martin Castrogiovanni. 
I've already commented on the rights and, mainly, wrongs of Castro's rant here, but one thing that doesn't really need to be said (I'll say it anyway) is that it has ramped the temperature up to boiling point for Saturday's return fixture, to the point where it becomes the big clash of the weekend.

Toulon may have all the big names in world rugby to the extent that their roster reads like some sort of dream team, but Leicester – not the European heavyweights of old – bullied them on Sunday night at Welford Road.  That Tigers' mindset that saw them claim two European titles a decade ago still runs strong and, although it wasn't a pretty game, there was no doubt that the hosts were deserved winners last weekend.  Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole were dominant in the front row, smashing the Toulon scrum, whilst Jamie Gibson was a constant threat in the lineout.  In the loose, the physicality of Tom Youngs and Brad Thorn consistently knocked back the likes of Bakkies Botha and Chris Masoe at ruck time.  Simply put, Toulon lived off the scraps which Leicester gave them – in the form of a loose scrum and an intercept – but there's little chance of that happening this weekend.  Toulon are not used to losing.  And they will not like the picture that has been painted of them in the media this week.
But Leicester believe.  And, in so many occasions previously, we've seen belief is all that they need.

Toulon Team News
Martin Castrogiovanni has been left out despite being included in the initial 27-man squad, but Delong Armitage retains his place in the back three, with Leigh Halfpenny coming in at full-back and Bryan Habana remaining on the left wing.  Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Mermoz resume their centre paring and Nicolas Sanchez and Sebastien Tillous-Borde will once again join forces in the half-backs. Castrogiovanni is one of two changes in the Toulon front row, with Alexandre Menini and Levan Chilachava joining hooker Guilhem Guirado in the starting line-up, while the only other change to the pack sees Mamuka Gorgodze drop to the bench to allow Juan Smith into the run-on side.

Starting Line-up:  15 Leigh Halfpenny; 14 Delon Armitage, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Bryan Habana; 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde; 1 Alexandre Menini, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 3 Levan Chilachava, 4 Bakkies Botha, 5 Ali Williams, 6 Juan Smith, 7 Steffon Armitage, 8 Chris Masoe (capt)

Subs: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Florian Fresia, 18 Carl Hayman, 19 Mamuka Gorgodze, 20 James O'Connor, 21 Jocelino Suta, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Romain Taofifenua

Key Player

Chris Masoe.  The big Kiwi number eight is usually a brutal presence in both defence and attack, but it's fair to say he was not at his most conspicuous last Sunday.  Toulon were rocked back consistently in the contact by players who are not necessarily bigger or stronger, but by individuals who were fired up and aggressive.  Masoe, too often, was hunted down on the gainline (he made a measly 10 metres from 7 carries) or gave away metres in the tackle, but there's no doubting he has to be a talisman for his side.  So much will depend on Toulon's ability to start ferociously and put Leicester under unbearable pressure – he must get his aggression up and lead from the front, because, when he does that, he creates a great platform for his pack to work off.

Leicester Team News

Richard Cockerill has made three changes to the side that caused the surprise at Welford Road, with England international Geoff Parling returning to the fold.  Parling replaces Graham Kitchener in the second row, while fellow England colleague Tom Youngs takes his place among the replacements with Leonardo Ghiraldini promoted to the starting XV.  Leicester’s final change again comes in the pack, with Italy international Robert Barbieri replacing Jordan Crane at No 8.
Starting Line-up:  15 Matthew Tait; 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Vereniki Goneva; 10 Owen Williams, 9 Ben Youngs (capt); 1 Marcos Ayerza, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Brad Thorn, 5 Geoff Parling, 6 Jamie Gibson, 7 Julian Salvi, 8 Robert Barbieri

Subs: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Sebastian De Chaves, 20 Jordan Crane, 21 Tom Croft, 22 Sam Harrison, 23 Freddie Burns.
Key Player
Ben Youngs.  The stand-in skipper was outstanding last week and the majority view was that he should have taken the man of the match award.  Sometime questions can be raised about his temperament and his decision making when the pressure is on, but in an electric Welford Road atmosphere his kicking was flawless and his service very sharp.  But Welford Road will seem like a day out at Disney next to Saturday in the South of France.  The Toulon crowd and players are already in a bad mood about their poor display last weekend without being worked up into a frenzy by the bloke with a tattoo on his face, so the intensity will be up yet another couple of notches.  Leicester must take the sting out of the initial confrontations, and that means kicking intelligently to frustrate the home pack and the fans – and Youngs is critical in this respect.

Key Battle

Levan Chilachava v Marcos Ayerza.  I have to admit to not being a fountain of knowledge on the young Georgian, but we do know that – if he is good enough to replace Marcos Castrogiovanni and leapfrog Carl Hayman into the starting line-up, he must be pretty handy.  But what a task Chilachava has on his hands against arguably the best scrummaging loosehead in world rugby.  One thing Chilachava does have in his favour is that he's shorter than both Castro and Hayman, and therefore may be better equipped to deal with Ayerza's low scrummaging position, but he will still need to bring out one of the games of his life to match up to the Puma veteran.  If he can obtain at least parity in the scrum, then the hosts should win – if Ayerza has his way like he did last week, it's anybody's game.


A week ago, this would have been a big win for Toulon.  But if you take away reliability of the set piece – both the line-out and the scrum – then it brings the margin down considerably.  Add in the fact that the Tigers were physically stronger, faster and more intelligent last week, and you can see why some Leicester fans may be thinking that there is a chance – even just a slim one – that they could sneak a famous win.  But I don't think that will happen.  Austin Healey wrote this week that rugby is 90% mindset – and he's right.  Toulon will not be as sloppy as they were on Sunday and will be fired up from the off – and if they smash Leicester in the contact early on and intimidate like we know they can, they should get an unassailable lead.  The Tigers, though, will be difficult to shake off, and there's every chance we'll be in for a nail-biter.  Toulon by 4.

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