RugbyPreview

Munster out to avenge painful quarter-final defeat as Toulouse touch down at Thomond

Antoine Dupont says French side are fully aware of the challenge that awaits them on Sunday

Champions Cup: Munster v Toulouse, Sunday, Thomond Park, 3.15 – Live on RTÉ 2 and BT Sport

Munster’s latest tilt at the tournament in which they are umbilically linked brings a reprise of their last one, which ended so painfully. At least this heavyweight collision of two-time and five-time winners will not end with eviction, least of all by dint of a goalkicking competition.

This latest instalment of what has been a momentous rivalry finds Munster in a much different place, and in more senses than a return from the Aviva Stadium to their Thomond Park citadel. Only Mike Haley and Joey Carbery survive from the starting backline that day, while the pack looks to have more quality and oomph given Tadhg Beirne and Gavin Coombes weren’t unavailable last May.

They’ve also found some timely momentum with three wins in a row. Haley’s return is the only change from last week’s starting line-up which recovered from a shaky start to produce their most impressive performance of the season in Edinburgh.

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With Shane Daly switching to the wing, the in-form Calvin Nash retained and Keith Earls named for his seasonal return off the bench, there is no place for Simon Zebo.

As for Toulouse, captain Antoine Dupont returns at scrumhalf, along with fellow internationals Julian Marchand and Anthon Jelonch, in the three changes from the side which cemented pole position in the Top 14 with a bonus-point win over Stade Francais.

Dupont’s availability after his suspension was halved could be a game changer in itself, but given his extraordinary capacity to think a second ahead of seemingly everyone else and have the skill set to execute game-changing plays, this is potentially true of every game he plays.

Marchand’s return also means Peato Mauvaka is reserved for impact off the bench, along with the returning Cyril Baillie and Charlie Faumuina. While the latter may not be the force of old, this could be equally significant recalling how their scrum hurt Munster last May as much as the loss of the barnstorming Peter O’Mahony just past the hour. Both sides retain five of the six frontrowers from that quarter-final.

This is the first meeting between the sides in pool play since Toulouse’s 60-19 home win in the 1996-97 season. Counting last May’s quarter-final as a defeat, Munster have won four of the seven knock-out clashes since that day, including the epic semi-final in 2000 in Bordeaux, the 2008 final in Cardiff and two thumping quarter-final home victories nine and six seasons ago by 47-23 and 41-16.

The Toulouse players were clearly spooked by Thomond Park on those first two visits to the ground, and have since won a Last 16 tie here two seasons ago, behind closed doors, by 40-33, as well as coming through a searching examination in front of a 40,000-plus crowd in Dublin last May.

Ticket sales were at 21,000 on Friday, with a likely crowd of around 22,000, shy of the capacity normally anticipated for such a fixture. But given its Sunday slot and the presence of RTÉ, it will still rank as one of the highest, if not the highest, in the Champions Cup this weekend.

In any event, this is only Toulouse’s third game in front of the Munster faithful at Thomond Park, something they appear aware of judging by Dupont’s comments this week.

“Yes, we talked about it, we will have to understand it because the last time we went to Thomond Park and it was full, it didn’t go very well. I was not there but we conceded 40 points. Now we know the value that the ‘16th man’ can have in this mythical stadium, and given the context we have with this team on the European scene, we know that they will be ready to receive us.”

In highlighting Munster’s physicality, breakdown work and precise kicking game, Dupont added: “And this season, we have the feeling that they have developed their game a little more, with more links between their forwards and their three-quarters. Above all, they have great players who know this competition and the international level perfectly.”

Nor does anything about the last two meetings point to anything other than a fiercely and closely contested game, hence Toulouse being three-point favourites with one bookmaker.

On paper, this star-studded Toulouse side looks to have way more arrows in their quiver. Munster will have to rise to the occasion in time-honoured fashion and, with Beirne, O’Mahony, Craig Casey and Carbery especially playing to their peak, produce their best performance of the season. Then again, nothing too new there.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Josh Wycherley, Roman Salanoa, Jack O’Donoghue, Alex Kendellen, Paddy Patterson, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls.

TOULOUSE: Thomas Ramos; Ange Capuozzo, Dimitri Delibes, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Rodrigue Neti, Julien Marchand, Dorian Aldegheri; Richie Arnold, Emmanuel Meafou; Anthony Jelonch, Alban Placines, Alexandre Roumat.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Cyril Baille, Charlie Faumuina, Thibaud Flament, Yannick Youyoutte, Jack Willis, Martin Page Relo, Lucas Tauzin.

Referee: Christophe Ridley (England).

Forecast: Munster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times