Even Munster’s best may not suffice against champions
Defeating Toulon in their home from home just about the biggest task in European rugby
Munster’s Paul O’Connell dends off Toulouse’s Guthro Steenkamp during the Heineken Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
This is it then, for the sole remaining Irish – indeed Celtic – interest in European affairs this season to extend to the Cardiff final four weeks hence, Munster must boldly go where Rob Penney reckons they have never gone before, and indeed where no team ever has.
With a forecast of 20 degrees and the warm Mediterranean sun on their backs, Toulon go into this tie having won all 12 of their Heineken Cup ties in either of their Cote d’Azur homes. Although the Stade Velodrome remains a building site, even if the Red Army reaches 7,000, they will be outnumbered six to one by the home fans who make the 45-metre trek along the A50 motorway.
And nothing emphasises the scale of their challenge than Toulon’s one change from the team that beat Leinster 29-14 in the quarter-finals, with David Smith being replaced by Bryan Habana. For their part, Munster bring CJ Stander and Sean Dougall in for the injured skipper Peter O’Mahony and the unlucky Tommy O’Donnell, who drops to the bench, with this game coming just too soon for Donnacha Ryan.
Further underlining the magnitude of Munster’s task is the ratio of 13 away wins in the 36 semi-final. Of their seven previous semi-finals overseas, Munster have won three but they have only once been beaten by more than a score, and they were given similarly slim hope against a then rampant Clermont 12 months ago when pinned to the ropes for the first quarter. They hung in gamely – as they assuredly will have to do tomorrow – and came within a bounce of winning.
Clermont almost palpably cracked but Toulon are not weighed down by the same historical baggage. Indeed, in Europe this season, they have played a more ambitious brand of rugby than in the Top 14, which seemed to catch Leinster by surprise.
In their four home games, Toulon have scored 16 tries and 155 points, conceding nine tries and 82 points along the way. Considering they also blew Munster away 32-16 three seasons ago, Toulon will expect their hard straight runners (Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith, Steffon Armitage and particularly Mathie Bastareaud) constant changes of running angles (with Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Matt Giteau creators in chief), offloading, fast defensive line-speed and presence at the breakdown to suffice again.
For Munster to create any doubts in Toulon minds (ie be within a score entering the last quarter) they will have to emulate their performance against Toulouse in many ways and better it in one key area.
Without O’Mahony they probably won’t be able to reprise their four first-half steals from six Toulouse throws. Yet Munster’s maul was the weapon that took the game away from Toulouse early in the second half and it provided Leinster with their sole try.
Munster’s dynamism was particularly pronounced in the clearing out that followed – witness the 19-phase opening try, and the early second-half tries by David Kilcoyne and CJ Stander. If this can be repeated Conor Murray (whose strong carries led to both the latter tries and who has four try assists in this campaign) has the running game to hurt Toulon.
Munster have been the most disciplined side in the cup, conceding just 8.3 penalties/free-kicks per game, although maintaining that average with Wayne Barnes in charge (and JP Doyle on the line) may not be easy. They also have the most turnovers collectively, although Steffon Armitage is by some way the leading individual with 17. Ala Bastareuad, he is as fiendishly difficult to shift as he is to stop, and one imagines Munster have had drills specifically designed with him in mind as well as picking Dougall.
Most of all though, in addition to stopping the close-in charges, one suspects that Munster will have to improve their line speed across their defence, especially as Bastareaud is even more difficult to stop when he gathers momentum. If he is allowed to gallop into his stride he could wreak untold damage.
Toulon have a greater collection of World Cup winners and global stars. Yet with Munster, all the more so on these grand occasions, the whole always adds up to more than the sum of their parts. If Munster ‘grenade the rucks’, push up and smash anything in sight and bring real intensity – as we know they can – and be more accurate with the ball than Leinster, then they have a fighter’s chance.
It will be the biggest game of their careers for a host of them and Munster can rattle Toulon’s cage alright, but dethroning the champions on their own home from home is a tall ask, the tallest in European rugby.