‘It’s a special competition to the club’ - Rowntree and Munster relishing Toulouse test

Head coach insists last season’s penalty shootout against the French outfit has not been discussed

Graham Rowntree’s first Heineken Champions Cup game as Munster head coach is a nice easy one at their famed Thomond Park citadel; just the five-time champions Toulouse next Sunday (kick-off 3.15pm) in a game which will be televised live by RTÉ, marking the return of an Irish province to terrestrial television in the pool stages.

As if to underline their pedigree, Toulouse are currently atop the Top 14 as well, and Rowntree admits that they are the ultimate benchmark in European rugby.

“Absolutely, they’re good at everything. Their league position suggests that, good at everything. They’ve threats, great players, trick plays, power game. We’ve got our hands full. It’s a real European giant coming to Thomond.”

As ever, the mere prospect of the competition returning to Thomond Park for the first time since the second leg win over Exeter last April, all the more so with such illustrious visitors in town, has heightened the sense of anticipation in Munster’s high performance centre in the University of Limerick.

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“Yes, certainly my first Heineken Cup game in charge, but we’ve had a cracking session today. It’s a special competition to the club, certainly heightened our energy today, and our interest today. So far, so good.”

Of course, the two clubs steeped in European rugby history met most recently in the quarter-finals at the Aviva Stadium last May when Toulouse became only the second team to win a knock-out game in the competition by dint of a goal-kicking competition following the 24-24 draw over 100 minutes.

However, Munster’s league position concentrated minds on the recent URC games against Connacht and Edinburgh which yielded timely bonus point wins, with thus far no talk of that eventful day in the Aviva.

“It’s not been spoken about, that game,” said Rowntree of that epic quarter-final. “It was a special, special afternoon. What we’ve looked at is their current form and it’s undeniable what their threats are and the talent they’ve got in that group.

“So, we’ve analysed them and we’ve prepped it like a normal week by looking at their recent games. We’ve not looked at the Aviva game so far.”

Munster bring some momentum into this latest instalment after backing up their victory over a South African ‘A’ side and a 24-17 win at home over Connacht by recovering from a 17-7 deficit with 31 unanswered points away to Edinburgh last week.

What pleased Rowntree the most in those last two victories was “the manner in which we’ve played,” the Munster head coach adding: “What we’ve been doing in training is coming through; intensity, around our attack, but I’ve been pleased with our power game, the maul, both sides of it. There’s a nice blend to our game, a real nice blend to what we’re doing.

“Friday night was impressive in terms of sticking there. We gifted them two soft tries, but we didn’t capitulate, and we grew and were still growing as the game was blown up at the end.”

After the disruptions to selection caused by injuries and the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa in a difficult start to the season, Rowntree was able to select contrastingly settled matchday 23s against Connacht and Edinburgh.

“It’s helped having the guys back from internationals. I have to manage their workload, but it’s important that they came straight back into the team. We needed some momentum. Having some guys back off the injury list as well. It’s been good, and we’ll hopefully be able to do the same this week as well.”

Curing those difficult early weeks in Munster’s season, when they lost five of their first seven games, their new defence coach Denis Leamy had forecast that the team would begin to find some form at this juncture in the campaign.

“Yeah, it would appear that way,” said Rowntree. “I’ve been delighted with how Denis is flourishing as a coach. It’s his first gig as a lead defence coach and he’s got an aura about him that the lads are feeding off. He’s been proven right and long may it continue.”

Most of all, in keeping with Rowntree’s mantra during his first few months in the job, the turnaround has been in large part due to the hard work being done on the training ground.

“We’ve trained hard, I’ve said previously that hard work tends to pay off. We train hard and fast with our sessions, to drive the difference in the way we’re playing and the intensity. It’s coming through.

“I was always confident that it would come through, but the lads are getting better. They’re getting more skilful, they’re getting more comfortable with how we’re training and playing and then there’s the consistency of returning internationals and injured players.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times