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RC Toulonnais vs Leinster Rugby
Heineken Cup Quarter-final
Stade Mayol, Toulon,
Sunday, 6th April 2014, 17:30 (16:30 Irish time)

Television: Live: Sky Sports 3, Highlights TG4 8.30

In a quality line-up of quarter-finals of what is sadly the last ever Heineken Cup, the battle between the last two winners just about takes the cake. Leinster take on the champions Toulon in the first ever meeting between the two sides. Toulon are relatively new to the top table, having risen meteorically from the French lower divisions to European champions in just seven years.

Of course their progress was bankrolled by the massive spending power of their multi-millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal who has signed battalions of top international players from across the globe. But perhaps his most important signing was that of Jonny Wilkinson back in 2009. Wilkinson had such a horrendous injury record while at Newcastle that he was seen as something of a risk, especially at the salary he was on, but it's paid off in spades. Not only did Wilkinson become a regular match-winner with his trusty left boot, he also became a leader in the club and instilled his own sense of personal pride and dignity into the team. It must be said not all team members got the message though, considering how Delon Armitage behaves himself.

Of course Wilkinson will take on his old buddy from the 2001 and 2005 Lions tours Brian O'Driscoll in what will very likely be the final Heineken Cup game for one of them as O'Driscoll has confirmed his retirement and Wilkinson has heavily hinted he was finish too at the end of the season. Even though he is four months younger than O'Driscoll, Wilkinson made his international debut a year earlier than O'Driscoll back in 1998.

Since then their careers have been oddly linked as they both became mega-stars, probably the two best known rugby players in the Northern Hemisphere. They are both also hugely admired and well-liked within the game, great professionals who were both more than willing to put their bodies on the line for their team. It's almost sad that one will have to lose out this Sunday, but you know there will be the utmost respect in their handshake at the final whistle, regardless of the result.

Leinster are, of course, up against it. They travel to the champions, a team who've never lost a home game in the Heineken Cup, with a massive squad of star players.

Then, again, they are Leinster.

If there's one team that can go there and win, it's the three-time champions. To do that though, they will need to produce their best performance of the season, even better than the one they produced away to Northampton. There were flashes of that type of form in the third quarter of the match against Munster last week. However they won't get away with the slow start they made last week when they gave Munster a nine point lead.

Ian Madigan's jittery start to that game seems to have cost him his place as Matt O'Connor has gone with the experience of Jimmy Gopperth in the number ten jersey. The other change to the backs is the return of Dave Kearney in place of Luke Fitzgerald, who is left out of the squad entirely. There's good news on the injury front with Cian Healy and Rhys Ruddock fit to return to the starting line-up with Jack McGrath and Martin Moore coming back to the bench.

For Toulon the main news is that Jonny Wilkinson is fit to return as captain in the number 10 jersey. However it is somewhat surprising that there is no place in the squad at all for Freddie Michalak, considering he scored 27 of Toulon's 32 points in their win over Toulouse last week. Scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde gets the nod to partner Wilkinson ahead of Michael Claassens, who's on the bench. Mathieu Bastareaud and Matt Giteau are two very different players but they can combine to devastating effect in midfield and Delon Armitage, Drew Mitchell and David Smith make up a quality back three.

Xavier Chiocci, Craig Burden and Carl Hayman make up a pretty fearsome frontrow and even with their top two locks injured, Danie Rossouw and Jocelino Suta are two quality replacements. The backrow contains two world-class veterans in Juan Smith and Juan Fernandez Lobbe but England's Steffon Armitage has most often been their star-man and he starts at number eight. There's more star quality on the bench in the shape of Martin Castrogiovanni, Bryan Habana and Maxime Mermoz.

So all in all it's a pretty difficult assignment. However Leinster have overcome the odds before in France and hopefully they can do it again.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-04-04