This weekend’s set of Heineken Cup fixtures are mouth-watering. You cannot argue with Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan when he says this is the best line-up in the tournament’s history. In fact, this will probably be the best weekend of rugby in the northern hemisphere all year.
To mark the occasion, here is a look back at an enthralling game at this stage in the competition eight years ago, when Leinster travelled to reigning European champions Toulouse and came away 35-41 winners. It was a breathless match, and Leinster can draw on that experience when they travel to Toulon on Sunday.
In that quarter-final from 2006 Leinster were simply outstanding, and the scoreline flattered the home side. For all the brilliance of Brian O’Driscoll, it was a game that was settled by the contrasting performances of the two fly-halves. Maverick Toulouse 10 Frédéric Michalak defines French flair and unpredictability, but his two crucial errors, combined with a majestic performance from opposite number Felipe Contepomi, decided the outcome of this quarter final.
In particular, Contepomi’s vision was sensational. His deft offload set up O’Driscoll for the first try, and his decision to run the ball from his own 22 led to a fantastic score by Denis Hickie. The build-up to that try serves to highlight the great rugby on show that day.
Shane Horgan added the fourth try, and late Toulouse scores by Nyanga and Jauzion were simply consolation. Toulouse played very well, but Leinster were just better. After the match, then-coach Michael Cheika had this to say about Contepomi: ‘Felipe was pretty good – we get sick of saying that’.
Michalak, meanwhile, left the field to boos and jeers on 72 minutes. In that time he slotted a well-taken drop goal, but more importantly, he had thrown a pass to Leinster flanker Cameron Jowitt ten metres from the line for his try, Leinster’s second. Furthermore, Michalak’s profligacy from hand led to the turnover from which, in one phase, Leinster ran the length of the field through Contepomi, D’Arcy and Hickie.
This year the equation is similar for the Irish province. As in 2006, they must travel to the south of France to face the reigning Heineken Cup champions. But this time it is big-spending Toulon who are the opponents. One constant that will be a nice reminder of 2006 for Leinster, is that Michalak, who excelled in the win against Toulouse on Sunday in Jonny Wilkinson’s absence, may have another key role to play. There is no knowing what he will do.
Like eight years ago, Leinster have the fast-paced approach to win the match. Finding out if they can do just that will be a fascinating end to a superb weekend of rugby.