Saturday, 6 December 2014

European Champions Cup Preview - Leicester Tigers v Toulon

If you want to see somebody frown, ask them what their favourite Lord of the Rings film is.  They’ll pull that face either because they think you’re weird for asking such a nerdy question, or they’ll have to run through each film in precise detail in their heads before coming any sort of conclusion.  My personal favourite is Return of the King, despite the cringe-inducing long goodbye at the end.  And why am I talking about this?  Well, it is a slightly tenuous link but ‘The Return of the King’ was the first phrase which came to mind when I saw that Martin Castrogiovanni was returning to Welford Road in Toulon’s colours. 
Castro is, of course, a legend in the East Midlands, known for his larger than life character and his eccentrically larger than life appearance as much as for his relentless and consistently-excellent efforts on the pitch.    But when he shows up for the men in red, he will have a real challenge on his hands in the set piece.  Although the Toulon team sheet reads like a who’s who of international rugby, the one area of potential supremacy for the hosts – at first glances at least – would appear to be in the scrum.  Marcos Ayerza is widely regarded by many to be the best scrummaging loosehead in the world, and his old team-mate is getting a bit long in the tooth and doesn’t quite possess the raw power that he did in his younger days in Tigers’ colours.  That said, the emotion of the occasion could just bring that extra bit of energy he needs.
Elsewhere though, you can see a bit of daylight between the sides – not necessarily always in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of form and especially in terms of cohesion.  Leicester’s decision not to replace Matt O’Connor has always puzzled me and it looks, with the signing of Aaron Mauger, like the management have finally accepted that the output of the Leicester backline does not reflect the quality of the player they have available.  What does reflect their current stuttering displays, however, is their league position – 5th.  Toulon, although it took them some time adjust to life without a certain Mr Wilkinson, are sitting on the summit of the Top 14 and are really motoring through the gears.  They have a side to die for (or rather, to pay a stupid amount of money for) and that is what makes them less fallible to the away-day jitters that so many French sides suffer from – they have players all over the park who have won in the toughest conditions at the highest levels.
There are of course battles all over the park to keep us intrigued, but it is fair to say that the Crumbie Terrace will be keeping one eye on a certain shaggy prop throughout the 80 minutes, and beyond though.  The question remains though, will it be a triumphant return of the king or another tedious overlong goodbye?
Leicester Team News
England scrum-half Ben Youngs returns to lead Leicester Tigers in their home European Champions Cup Pool Three match against Toulon on Sunday, with Frenchman David Mele dropping to the bench.  Matt Smith comes in at centre, with Vereniki Goneva reverting to the wing, whilst Jordan Crane replaces Lawrence Pearce in the pack at number 8.
Starting Line up:  M Tait; B Scully, M Smith, A Allen, V Goneva, O Williams, B Youngs (capt); M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole, B Thorn, G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane.
Subs:  L Ghiraldini, M Rizzo, F Balmain, G Parling, R Barbieri, S Harrison, F Burns, M Benjamin.
Key Player
Vereniki Goneva.  With Manu Tuilagi out injured, and no apparently coherent – or at least threatening – tactics to fall back on, Leicester have often relied on the individual brilliance of Vereniki Goneva to win them games.  Against a winger as accomplished and intelligent as Drew Mitchell, it may be a lot to ask the Fijian maestro to conjure up some magic, but that is precisely what Leicester will need.  They may have the pack to compete, but it will not achieve the dominance to win the game by itself – they need Goneva working off his wing, testing Sanchez, and then also holding his width at the correct time to give himself the space to stand up his man.
Toulon Team News
With Matt Giteau unavailable, Nicolas Sanchez steps into the fly half spot to lead the formidable Toulon backline.  English brothers Delon and Steffon Armitage are in the reigning Champions’ starting line-up which, shockingly, contains just five French players.  Martin Castrogiovanni is also making an emotional return to a ground which he made his own over 8 years of service, and is sure to receive a warm welcome from the Welford Road faithful.
Starting Line up:  D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, B Habana, N Sanchez, S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci, G Guirado, M Castrogiovanni, B Botha, A Williams, M Gorgodze, S Armitage, C Masoe (capt).
Subs: J Charles Orioli, F Fresia, C Hayman, J Smith, R Wulf, J Suta, E Escande, R Taofifenua.
Key Player
Nicolas Sanchez.  The fly half was simply superb for the Pumas in the rugby championship, even in a losing side, refreshing the Argentine back play by taking the ball to the line and picking out his runners or even sizzling through himself.   He couldn’t quite replicate that form in a disappointing Autumn series – partly due to the pack underperforming – but if he takes the ball to the gainline and puts the juggernaut that is Mathieu Bastareau into even just a slight gap, the French centre is going to be very hard to spot.  All he needs is clean ball, because Sanchez has the ability to unleash the rather substantive arsenal outside of him.
Key Battle
Julian Salvi v Steffon Armitage.  Could it be any others?  Arguably the best pilferer in the Premiership over the past three seasons against, well, probably the best pilferer in Europe.  Salvi is rarely talked up by fans because he’s pretty unspectacular, but his durability and flawless technique makes him indispensible to the Tigers – so often he is the first man over the ball, and once there he is nearly impossible to dislodge.  A bit like a certain Englishman lining up opposite him.  Armitage’s physique isn’t going to win him any swimming certificates (except perhaps for bombing), but he is immovable over the ball and – this is where he has the edge on Salvi – he is difficult carrier to stop because of his low centre of gravity.  But Sunday’s game is all about the breakdown – if Salvi gets on top, he can turn the form book on its head and set a famous win in motion.  But against Armitage, that is far from easy.
If Leicester had the likes of Parling, Croft, Slater and Tuilagi available (the latter two in particular), I would be leaning towards Leicester milking the Welford Road factor and coming away with a bruising win.  But the Tigers’ have stuttered so badly without their big names that, even with the likes of the Youngs brothers and Dan Cole returning, it is hard to see them coming out on top against a side in which every player is a seasoned international  - and they are a side who are bang in form.  The Tigers are not.  There is the potential for the hosts to get the upper hand in the scrum – shockingly, I think Ayerza may be able to cause Castro some problems – but otherwise, the visitors just seem to have a slight in edge in physicality and big game experience.  And those will be the two deciding factors on Sunday.  Toulon by 6.

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