Toulon bring out their stars to face Edinburgh
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill is in familiar surroundings as he prepares his team for this evening's showdown with Toulon at the iconic Stade Mayol, and you could picture him nodding and chin stroking over enough well known names when presented with the French giants' team sheet yesterday.
However, even the man who spent six months with the cashed-up Mediterranean powerhouse was left scratching his head at one.
“We’ll have to do some homework on the full-back, because I’d never heard of him before,” said Cockerill of 19-year-old Mathieu Smaili who starts this evening.
Elsewhere, plenty of big guns are rolled out. Skipper Mathieu Bastareaud and Francois Trinh-Duc in the centre, Springbok JP Pietersen and All Black Julian Savea on the wings, Les Bleus’ tyro stand-off Anthony Belleau, Wales and Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb, France captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado. So not what most would call a second string then.
The general feeling is that three-time European champions Toulon are long gone this year but Cockerill feels they may have the merest sniff of the quarter-finals if two bonus-point wins get them up to 16 points in a Pool 5 currently proudly topped by the Scots.
The Englishman is certainly not banking on them chucking in the towel and, following the stereotype of French sides, giving an insouciant shrug after a couple of pool defeats, including that brilliant 40-14 dismantling at Edinburgh’s hands in October.
“I think certainly Toulon need to deliver a big performance,” warned Cockerill. “Because they’re at home, and they will be expected to beat an Edinburgh team. They still have an outside chance of qualifying depending on other results.”
Looking at the resource-rich club he took to a Top 14 final back in 2017, now languishing 11th in the French league, Cockerill admitted he was at a loss, while clearly hoping the woes continue this evening.
“There’s clearly something not quite right. With the personnel they’ve got, when you name that backline and the quality they’ve got and the cost of that backline, there’s something not quite clicking at the moment for whatever reason,” he said. “We’re trying to get the sum out of our parts and maybe they probably know themselves that they’re not playing as well as they can. But clearly they’ve got enough quality so if it does click on the day they’re good enough to beat anybody.”
That “sum of our parts” message has continued this week as Edinburgh head to the south of France, buoyed by five wins on the bounce and knowing the quarter-finals are tantalisingly within grasp, while acknowledging that defeating a team who have only ever lost two Champions Cup games at their own fortress will require a monumental effort.
“You know me, I love to be an underdog so let’s not change it,” said Cockerill, repeating the mantra he trotted out with relish during that fortnight of 1872 Cup domination over Glasgow.
Not that Cockerill is averse to talking his boys up as he not surprisingly restored the starting XV from the win at Scotstoun, pretty much the settled side he has been deploying since the first of back-to-back wins over Newcastle last month.
“For me, you look at that [Toulon] forward pack and look at our pack and we’re man for man as good as they are. Rambo [McInally] is the equal of Guirado and that will be a hell of a battle. Facundo Isa against Hamish Watson is a great battle too, Vili Mata has been outstanding for us and Jamie Ritchie has been growing into his international role very very well. That front five, we like to think we’re pretty tough and resilient and will go towards anybody. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Cockerill was also happy with the fact his compatriot Wayne Barnes will be the referee today.
“I’m happy. I think the English officials are probably some of the best in the world,” he said. “Wayne Barnes and Matthew Carley the next couple of weekends will be good for us. Barnes is a world-class referee and we’re going to need him to be right on it.
“When I coached teams in France an English referee was always an advantage to the English-speaking team. I know some of the Toulon boys speak English and there are some Anglophones but it does make it easier when you can understand the referee very clearly and some of the French guys won’t speak English and I’m not sure how good Barnes’s French is, so there will be a mixture of all sorts around there.”