Leinster have shown themselves to be more than capable of overcoming the odds by winning big European knockout games in France, and that is the task facing Matt O’Connor’s men when they take on defending champions Toulon in Marseille on Sunday.
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP SEMI-FINAL: Sunday, April 19
TOULON v LEINSTER, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, 4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 2 HD/RTÉ Radio 1/highlights TG4)
Team News: It is as you were for Leinster with no change to the team selected for the quarter-final against Bath two weeks ago, although there is one alteration to the bench with Ben Marshall included.
Twelve players come back into the starting line-up after last weekend’s GUINNESS PRO12 defeat to the Newport Gwent Dragons. Marshall, who started the game at Rodney Parade, will be on bench duty against Toulon after Tom Denton picked up a muscle strain (bicep) earlier this week.
The back-three consists of Rob Kearney at full-back, Fergus McFadden on the right wing for his 125th provincial cap, with Luke Fitzgerald selected on the left wing.
In the centre Ben Te’o, who scored two tries against the Dragons, is again selected in the number 13 jersey with Ian Madigan resuming at inside centre. Madigan scored all of Leinster’s points in the victory against Bath. Isaac Boss will start at scrum half with Jimmy Gopperth outside him in the number 10 shirt.
Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross have been selected in the front row with Healy making only his fourth start of the season for Leinster having recovered from injury. Behind them Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy pair up once more in the second row.
Jordi Murphy is the only player of the back row trio to be involved last weekend, having come off the bench early on for the injured Shane Jennings. Murphy starts at blindside flanker with Sean O’Brien selected at openside for only his third Leinster appearance of the season.
Jamie Heaslip captains the side from the base of the scrum in his 199th game for Leinster. Only four other players (Gordon D’Arcy, Leo Cullen, Jennings and Shane Horgan) have played more times for Leinster than the Naas man, who made his debut back in March 2005.
Meanwhile, Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny has recovered from injury to take his place in the Toulon starting line-up for Sunday’s encounter. His inclusion sees England’s Delon Armitage switch to the right wing.
The other back-line changes from the French giants’ quarter-final defeat of Wasps see Bryan Habana come in for Drew Mitchell on the left wing and Matt Giteau takes over from the injured Maxime Mermoz at inside centre.
Up front, Alexandre Menini makes way for Xavier Chiocci at loosehead prop and Juan Smith and Juan Fernandez Lobbe have been preferred to Mamuka Gorgodze and Steffon Armitage in the back row.
TOULON: Leigh Halfpenny; Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana; Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Xavier Chiocci, Guilhem Guirado, Carl Hayman (capt), Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe.
Replacements: Jean-Charles Orioli, Alexandre Menini, Levan Chilachava, Steffon Armitage, Drew Mitchell, Rudi Wulf, Michael Claassens, Jocelino Suta.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Ben Te’o, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Ben Marshall, Dominic Ryan, Eoin Reddan, Gordon D’Arcy, Zane Kirchner.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Greg Garner (England)
Television Match Official: Graham Hughes (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Toulon to win: 1/5; Draw: 28/1; Leinster to win: 9/2
Pre-Match Quotes: Matt O’Connor (Leinster) – “It wasn’t a lack of ambition (that cost us against Toulon) last year, I think it was a lack of execution. There was a lot of intent, probably too much intent. We looked at our game in relation to what Munster went and delivered in their semi-final and (they) managed the game significantly better than we did and we looked at it as a key learning for us.
“We’ve got loads of very, very keen fans that want us to be at the top end of Europe and the playing group want to be at that level. That’s why we play and why we’re involved in the game, for occasions like Sunday. It’s a knockout game where you put yourself in position to be champions of Europe and that’s where you want to be.
“I think we just need to make sure that we are as accurate as we can be. We control our process, as Jamie (Heaslip) said, and we put ourselves in a position to be in the game with 15 minutes to play.”
Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) – “I’ve played a (Heineken Cup) semi-final in 2009 with Cardiff Blues. We lost on penalties and I hope that the outcome will be different on Sunday. It was a great disappointment, but I have the opportunity to play another. It’ll be a huge game against a team packed with quality.
“It will be difficult and we need to be 100% ready. This is one of the biggest matches of my career and it’s also a great match for Toulon. With the success the club has had over the past two years, we do not want to stop. We want to push on.
“Last year we played Leinster in the quarter-finals and again we saw against Bath that this Leinster team never gives up. It was good to win against Grenoble (in the Top 14) after the defeat against Toulouse at the Vélodrome. We’re back at it and it’s very exciting.
“I played a lot of matches before the Six Nations, I felt more comfortable and I wanted to continue at this pace. It was frustrating to be injured but I was happy to play one half against Grenoble.”
Current Form – Toulon – (Top 14 Championship): Won 29-15 away to Bayonne; Won 60-19 at home to La Rochelle; Lost 17-10 away to Racing Metro 92; Won 18-13 at home to Bordeaux-Bègles; Lost 28-24 at home to Stade Francais; Won 53-13 away to Brive; Won 40-17 at home to Montpellier; Won 21-18 away to Oyonnax; Lost 21-10 away to Toulouse; (European Champions Cup): Won 28-18 at home to the Scarlets; Won 23-13 away to Ulster; (Top 14 Championship): Won 61-28 at home to Grenoble; Lost 22-14 away to Castres Olympique; Won 27-19 at home to Clermont Auvergne; (European Champions Cup): Lost 25-21 away to Leicester Tigers; Won 23-8 at home to Leicester Tigers; (Top 14 Championship): Won 30-6 at Lyon; Lost 30-6 away to Stade Francais; Lost 16-12 away to Montpellier; Won 32-23 at home to Racing Metro 92; (European Champions Cup): Won 60-22 at home to Ulster; Won 26-3 away to the Scarlets; (Top 14 Championship): Won 24-17 at home to Bayonne; Lost 28-23 away to Bordeaux-Begles; Won 34-11 at home to Brive; Won 22-14 away to Lyon; Lost 34-24 at home to Toulouse; (European Champions Cup): Won 32-18 at home to Wasps; (Top 14 Championship): Won 35-24 away to Grenoble
Leinster – (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 22-20 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 42-12 at home to the Scarlets; Lost 10-9 away to Connacht; Won 37-23 at home to Cardiff Blues; Lost 34-23 at home to Munster; Won 20-3 away to Zebre; (European Champions Cup): Won 25-20 at home to Wasps; Won 21-16 away to Castres Olympique; (GUINNESS PRO12): Won 33-8 at home to Edinburgh; Drew 24-24 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 18-12 at home to the Ospreys; (European Champions Cup): Lost 24-18 away to Harlequins; Won 14-13 at home to Harlequins; (GUINNESS PRO12): Won 21-11 at home to Connacht; Lost 28-13 away to Munster; Won 24-11 at home to Ulster; Won 22-13 away to Cardiff Blues; (European Champions Cup): Won 50-8 at home to Castres Olympique; Drew 20-20 away to Wasps; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 16-14 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 29-8 at home to Zebre; Drew 9-9 away to the Ospreys; Lost 23-13 away to the Scarlets; Drew 34-34 at home to Glasgow Warriors; (European Champions Cup): Won 18-15 at home to Bath; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 25-22 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons
Top Scorers – 2014/15 European Champions Cup: Toulon – Points: Leigh Halfpenny 72; Tries: Steffon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Bryan Habana 4 each; Leinster – Points: Ian Madigan 98; Tries: Darragh Fanning 3
Previous European Meetings: 1
Sunday, April 6, 2014 – Quarter-final – Toulon 29 Leinster 14, Stade Félix Mayol
Match Facts –
– These sides first met in year’s quarter-finals with Toulon becoming the first team since 2010 to beat Leinster in a European knockout game
– Excluding their meeting last year, these sides combined have lost just two of their last 19 knockout fixtures in the European Cup
– These two sides have won five of the last six European Cups between them, including the last four in-a-row
– Should they win this match, Toulon will join London Irish (W1, D1) as the only two sides in the Champions Cup to play Leinster more than once without defeat; should Toulon win they would be the only team to play the Irish province more than once while maintaining a 100% winning record
– Leinster have won three of their last four semi-finals in the European Cup, however Toulon have gone on to reach the final on the two occasions on which they have reached the last-four
– Only Benetton Treviso (4.8) have averaged fewer offloads than Leinster this season (5.3), while Toulon have made the most (17.7 per game)
– Leinster have maintained the best ruck success rate (97%) in the competition, though Toulon have forced the worst ruck success rate (89%) from their opponents
– Opponents of Toulon have won a higher proportion of lineouts (92%) than against any other side this season
– Toulon have scored nine more tries (13) than Leinster (4) in the first (0-20 mins) and third quarter (40-60 mins) of matches combined this season
– Leigh Halfpenny has a better goal-kicking success rate (29/35 – 83%) than any other player to kick 20+ successful goals this season, while Ian Madigan has managed the most successful kicks (36/46 – 78%)
European Cup Records:
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
2013/14: Reached the quarter-finals
2012/13: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2005/06: Reached the semi-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2001/02: Reached the quarter-finals
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1998/99: Failed to qualify from Pool A
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool A
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool B
1995/96: Reached the semi-finals