Graham Rowntree couldn’t lie. When Antoine Dupont’s initial four-week suspension for his mid-air tackle on Cheslin Kolbe in France’s win over South Africa ruled him out of next Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener between Munster and Toulouse at Thomond Park (kick-off 3.15pm) Rowntree’s spirits surely lifted. Yet by the same token when that ban was subsequently halved, thereby making Dupont eligible, his spirts must have sunk a little.
“Yes and yes, unfortunately,” admitted the Munster head coach with a wry grin. “That’s typical of our luck. But, if you’re going to advance in this competition you’ve got to deal with players like him, and we spent a lot of time looking at him this week. He’s a proper jack-in-the-box. He’s good at everything. People underestimate his kicking game. For all his livewire activity at the base of the ruck and his pass, his kicking game is exceptional.”
Dupont was eased back into action for last week’s home defeat of Perpignan, which ended a three-game winless run, to cement Toulouse’s place atop the Top 14 - one of seven internationals brought on for the final half-hour on a bench with a combined tally of 162 Test caps.
Romain Ntamack is also ticking again, and after a wonderful counter-attack by the back three of Thomas Ramos, Ange Capuozzo and Matthis Lebel, it was Dupont who provide the link for Ntamack to finish off the bonus point try.
“They’re good at everything,” admitted Rowntree of the five-time champions. “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.”
The arrival of three South African teams and the return of Saracens along with all the usual suspects - not least Toulouse - would appear to make this season’s competition harder than ever to win. But, having not started to focus on the return of European rugby until this week due to the acute need for those back-to-back bonus point wins over Connacht and Edinburgh, Rowntree is not of a mind to look beyond this game.
“I am not thinking beyond this week, literally. We have got a powerhouse team, a juggernaut team coming on Sunday. I’m not one for thinking too far ahead at the best of times but certainly in this competition you would get bitten if you do.
“It is still Europe isn’t it? It is a different format, there are those additional teams but I think it will help the competition. But it is still Europe, it is special. With this cup there is a different feeling and we have been quite mindful of not mentioning it until this week because we have had two really heavy-duty league games that we had to get right. But it is great to come in at the start of the week after two bonus point wins and be able to talk about Europe. It is a special thing, just a special thing for the club.”
Indeed, while Toulouse bring European pedigree and a surfeit of game-breakers, Munster’s own European history also brings with it a collective X-factor, especially at Thomond Park. After that epic quarter-final last April at the Aviva, when Toulouse won via a goalkicking competition after the sides were deadlocked at 24-24 after 100 minutes, a strong start would be one assured way of again guaranteeing their supporters will be an additional ingredient.
“Yeah, I’d hope so. We always hope for a very good start. Definitely, definitely, a good start would get them right behind us, and not panic if we don’t have a good start. That can happen as well. It happened last Friday night,” said Rowntree in reference to Munster’s comeback from 17-7 down in Edinburgh to score 31 unanswered points.
“You always endeavour for a good start. You plan your week, you plan your warm-up about a fast start but more importantly, it’s composure if you don’t get things your own way.”
Rowntree is hopeful of picking a settled side for the third game running, although with Mike Haley expected to be available, Keith Earls back training and both Calvin Nash and Shane Daly in vibrant form, the new Munster think tank have a difficult choice in the backthree.
“They’re good headaches. Everyone keeps telling me, good headaches.
“Yeah, we’ve got some guys coming back and we’ve certainly got those back-three guys in form. We’ve got Mike Haley who should be available, he’s still completing return to play concussion protocols. Patrick Campbell, you know, [Liam] Coombes, [Conor] Phillips, all of the lads. We’ve had a good look at a lot of players and form counts for everything but I’m delighted with the resources we’ve got back there.”
Munster’s three-game winning run coming into Sunday’s momentous meeting has also coincided with new signing Antoine Frisch making his first three starts after injury. The 26-year-old is in line for his first Champions Cup start after playing just 12 minutes off the bench for previous club Bristol, but the French-born centre - who is Irish qualified through his maternal, Dublin-born grandmother = has added a new dimension to Munster’s game with his passing and offloading.
“Tony Fresh? He is silky smooth,” is how Rowntree aptly put it. “We noticed from the get-go, silky smooth in terms of passing, movement. He has got fitter. When we signed him, he had a bit of a shoulder injury and he sorted that out and got fitter.
“He sees things quickly. He has a very deft touch, has very good handling skills. I can recognise that from my playing days and me as a player,” quipped the former Leicester and England prop.
Another feature of Munster’s upturn in fortunes has been the return from what transpired to be a brief sabbatical at Wasps of former tight-head John Ryan on a short-term deal which Rowntree said could yet be extended.
“Potentially, potentially,” said Rowntree. “We’re looking at it.”