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Leinster Rugby vs RC Toulonnais
European Champions Cup Pool 5
RDS Arena, Dublin
Saturday, 19th December 2015, 17:15

Television: Live - Sky Sports, Highlights TG4

So Leinster are out of Europe, after three games.

The Christmas game at the Aviva, Leinster's marquee fixture, will now be played in a bizarre atmosphere. The game has been described as a dead rubber, but of course that's only true for the home team. Toulon still badly need the points in what's becoming a very tight three-way battle between them, Wasps and Bath. The prospect of playing in the Aviva might just be what their all-star squad need to motivate themselves after their lazy display at home last week. Leinster's only interest in the pool is now one of an observer but after losing three games in France to Toulon, it would still be deeply satisfying to beat them in Ireland, if only to see them sweat a little to qualify.

What's annoying though is the game last week really was there for the taking. Toulon were sluggish in attack and slow in defence and they never got close to their 'A' game. The Leinster team from four years ago would have picked them off, but sadly Leinster simply aren't that team anymore. A bright opening quarter was soon undermined by basic mistakes and the longer the game went on, the more mistakes they made. The skills deficit which has been there for some time now came back to haunt them and Johnny Sexton, the man we hoped would raise standards, sadly found himself dragged down to the general poor level. Toulon lived off their maul and Leinster's indiscipline and didn't really have to do a lot else to win. It wasn't all bad and there were positives in the performances of Luke Fitzgerald, Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier but you couldn't help the feeling that the team simply lost belief once things started to go against them. That winning mentality that Leinster fought so hard to build and which sustained them for many years of success now appears broken.

So where to now for Leinster? Of course this isn't the first time they've been knocked out at the pool stages. In Joe Schmidt's final season in charge in 2012/13 , they failed to qualify but at least that went down to the wire, only missing out at the end on tries scored. No, we have to go back to the 2007-08 season to recall the last time we were out of contention by Christmas. That was when we lost 29-10 to Edinburgh in a truly wretched display in Murrayfield. There was anger and despair among the travelling fans at the time. The fear was that the team would always be underachievers. There was also clearly anger among the squad and management themselves. Yet that disappointment proved something of a watershed moment. The squad regrouped, asked themselves some hard questions and improved enough to win the league. The next season, they were Heineken Cups champions, ironically enough at Murrayfield, the place of such despair eighteen months previously.

In the current mood of despair some are saying the good times are gone for good with the new financial power of the English clubs, as well as the French. But if it was just about money, why are Toulouse, a club with a massive budget, on such a downward spiral as well, which culminated with a humiliation at Ravenhill against Ulster last weekend? We've seen the Leicester Tigers too, a club with probably the biggest fanbase in England, struggling badly for the past few seasons. Obviously the Irish situation is complicated by the IRFU's attitude towards the provinces. Some fans are demanding more foreign players of better quality than the imports we've seen in the last few seasons. But we have to be careful what we wish for as we've seen the mess the national teams are in in France and England at the last World Cup.

For Leinster though it's time for some brutal honesty in their assessment of themselves. Back in 2007 in Edinburgh, there was the realisation that while they had some good players, they simply weren't a good enough team to really compete for silverware. The players realised they had to improve as a unit and set to work on it. The current squad are still talking like they're a good team that just isn't performing at the moment. "We just need to be a little more accurate" is the standard line trotted out ad nauseum but when you're making the same mistakes, match after match, they're really just deluding themselves. At the moment, Leinster have some good players but they are not a good team. It's only when they accept that, then the road to real improvement will really start.

Leinster have made three changes to the team that started last week. Dave Kearney and Eoin Reddan come in to the backline and Jack McGrath comes into the pack in place of the suspended Cian Healy. Toulon have made just two changes, both in the pack, from last week. Juan Smith comes into the back row in place of Mamuka Gorgodze who drops to the bench. He also takes over the captaincy from Matt Giteau. The only other change is Romain Taofifenua coming in for the injured Samu Manoa in the second row.

Though Leinster are out, they badly need a performance tomorrow just to give them confidence for the season ahead. Toulon will realise they were poor enough last week and may well come out firing. There's going to be the guts of forty four thousand people there tomorrow. If Leinster want to keep attracting crowds of this size, they need to show up tomorrow and give the crowd something to get excited about.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
RC Toulon
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Delon Armitage
Dave Kearney
14 Bryan Habana
Ben Te'o
13 Mathieu Bastareaud
Luke Fitzgerald 12 Ma'a Nonu
Isa Nacewa (C)
11 Drew Mitchell
Johnny Sexton 10 Matt Giteau
Eoin Reddan 9 Eric Escande

Jack McGrath 1 Florian Fresia
Richardt Strauss 2 Guilhem Guirado
Mike Ross 3 Matt Stevens
Devin Toner 4 Jocelino Suta
Mike McCarthy
5 Romain Taofifenua
Rhys Ruddock6 Juan Smith (C)
Josh van der Flier
7 Steffon Armitage
Jamie Heaslip
8 Duane Vermeulen

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Anthony Etrillard
Michael Bent 17 Xavier Chiocci
Martin Moore 18 Levan Chilachava
Tom Denton 19 Mamuka Gorgodze
Jordi Murphy 20
Juan Fernandez Lobbe
Nick McCarthy21 Tom Taylor
Ian Madigan 22 Sebastien Tillous-Borde
Zane Kirchner 23 Konstantine Mikautadze

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jack Conan,
Edward Byrne,
Mick Kearney,
Sean O'Brien,
Hayden Triggs,
Luke McGrath,
Noel Reid

Leigh Halfpenny,
Paul O'Connell,
Frederic Michalak,
Samu Manoa
Officials Referee: Wayne Barnes (England),
Assistant Referees: Tim Wigglesworth, Paul Dix (England),
Citing Commissioner: Shaun Gallagher (England),
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2015-12-19