It seems like each time Munster turn out this season they must prove themselves over again. The selections and pairings are invariably poured over and sometimes with that comes an underlying sense of uncertainty, although, the recent run from the win over South Africa ‘A’ to Edinburgh has brought much greater winning zeal and confidence.
One of the players who kicks against any notions of vulnerability, Tadhg Beirne, also understands that when French clubs come to visit Thomond Park, Munster have a habit of growing and filling the stadium.
It will be no different on Sunday with Toulouse, who currently lead the Top 14 table, expected to ask questions. As Graham Rowntree said earlier in the week, the 2021 champions are good at everything.
Irish lock Beirne is not of a mind to think any differently now as before. Memories don’t have to reach back too far to the last meeting, a quarter-final clash with Toulouse at Aviva Stadium last May. In similar circumstances with the French side the favourites, Munster dramatically took the match to a penalty shootout after finishing 24-24 in Dublin; Thomond Park unavailable as a result of Ed Sheeran concerts. They lost that, but ...?
“At the start of the week you look at it, you have those conversations with yourself,” says Beirne. “You look at the game as a squad and as a team and you know that if we are to have a chance of beating these guys I need to be at the top of my game, everyone from 1-15 will and it’s something we’re certainly targeting to put in our best performance.
“I think Europe in general, the physicality in these games certainly takes a step up. It’s just the nature of the beast. I think everyone is chasing that trophy and when you play the French teams, and even a lot of the English teams, they do have a bit more size than a lot of us, especially the Irish teams I suppose. So, I guess the physicality and that side of things isn’t something that we play every week, so maybe that’s why we think that. Yeah, physicality would be a big focus this week.”
Physicality is not an area Beirne is wanting in and his contribution to Ireland during the November internationals is in keeping with, beyond set-pieces, with an impressive body of work in break down and carry.
Nor does he see it as a mild concern heading into his sixth game in succession. Attrition is an accumulator but there is also the feeling that an injury-free Beirne in an extended competitive run is competing with his tail up and in stride.
“I’m feeling good, I’m happy to be injury free and to be playing,” he says “I feel fit, I’m certainly enjoying my rugby and hopefully I can keep building on it and improving.
“I think it’s [six games] probably good in terms of, for me, I like to play a couple of games on the bounce. In terms of my performance, it helps for sure. Sometimes that can’t always happen, but I’m enjoying it. I’m sure at some point it’ll become a lot for the body, but I’m enjoying it now and looking forward to the weekend.”
He made his 50th appearance for Munster when they played against Connacht in the United Rugby Championship at Thomond Park late last month, although, his spell as a professional player in the UK means he won’t break records. But Munster has a different personality to Leinster, Connacht or Ulster and Beirne style fits it snugly. There is value in that.
He also understands that although it might only be Munster’s first match of this season’s pool stage, everything will come back to bite the team if it does not go well and win at home. It is not knockout European rugby yet. But it is, almost.
“It’s exciting in terms of knowing your backs are against the wall and you’re fighting for everything,” he says. “The weeks are quite exciting in terms of that, we’re into pretty much knockout rugby when it comes to Champions Cup; you can’t really afford to lose games and you want to have the home last-16, home quarters.
“If we’re being honest, those first two URCs after the break were essentially knockout games for us. We didn’t talk about the table but we more or less said that if we don’t win these games we’re pretty much in a lot of trouble.
“We turned out these performances with our backs against the wall and it’s no different this weekend. I’m guessing we’re not favourites, but we’ll certainly relish it. Especially at home in Thomond.”
Beirne is a dog in the best sense. He’s everything Munster represents. Vulnerability or not, Toulouse beware.