By Gavin Mortimer
NO DOUBT about the tie of this weekend – Toulouse’s visit to Leicester for a winner takes all confrontation. Between them they’ve won the Heineken Cup six times with the reigning French champions the only club to have won four European titles.
But they’ll be up against it at Leicester. The Tigers are unbeaten at Welford Road since October 2006, a 21-match streak that Toulouse need to break if they’re to progress to the last eight. Lose, and the French club will almost certainly suffer the indignity of failing to reach the quarters for only the fourth time in eighteen years of competition.
In charge of Toulouse for the whole of that time has been Guy Noves. He’s predicting a “titanic combat” on Sunday, adding: “I think this game will be one of the biggest matches of the season whatever the result.”
The good news for Noves is that he’ll have captain Thierry Dusautoir raring to go against Leicester. The IRB Player of the Year in 2011 sat out Sunday’s 35-14 win over Treviso, a precaution given that the knee he injured in October is still not 100 percent. But the flanker has been passed fit and he’ll be joined in the match squad by centre Yann David and back-row Jean Bouilhou, who were also rested against Treviso.
Whether prop Census Johnston and fly-half Lionel Beauxis make the trip north has yet to be decided. Johnston injured his back against Treviso and is still undergoing treatment, while Beauxis’s knee is causing him trouble. One player definitely out is teenage centre Gael Fickou, who turned an ankle against Treviso and won’t be seen again for a month.
Not that he’ll be missed that much by Toulouse. Veteran centre Yannick Jauzion (rumoured to be on his way to Colomiers at the end of the season) has rediscovered some form of late after a miserable 2012, and is likely to partner Florian Fritz in midfield. His physique and savoir-faire will be crucial to Toulouse in nullifying the threat of Manu Tuilagi.”It’s going to be like a quarter-final,” said Jauzion, who’s appearance against Treviso was his first start in this season’s Heineken Cup. “It will be necessary to slip into international mode to meet the challenge but I know that we’ll all be ready.”
Yannic Nyanga, who has captained the side in the absence of Dusautoir, also appreciates the size of their task on Sunday. “The challenge is going to be immense,” predicts the flanker. “There’s Manu Tuilagi, of course, but he’s not the only threat.”
Like Leicester, Toulouse’s domestic form has been erratic and they currently lie third in the Top 14, seven points behind leaders Toulon. Four defeats and narrow wins against the likes of Mont-de-Marsan and Bordeaux have caused some in the French press to question whether Toulouse are a club past their prime. “We’ve been criticised but we’ve just won two matches on the road [in the Top 14] and won at home with a bonus point,” said Nyanga, who nonetheless realises that beating Treviso will count for nothing if they lose to the Tigers. “We’ll have to be strong everywhere and play in a way that will unsettle the English,” says Nyanga. “Our Everest awaits us.”
Previous Heineken Cup meetings
Leicester 14 Toulouse 9 (2007-08)
Leicester 22 Toulouse 23 (1997-98)
Leicester 37 Toulouse 11 (1996-97)