Matt Williams: Only way to triumph at Thomond Park is to out-Munster Munster
Toulon need to develop the type of team DNA that Munster and Leinster have achieved
Toulon head coach Fabien Galthie will arrive in Munster under no illusions. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images
Several years ago when Toulon travelled to Limerick, I met the then Toulon coach, Philippe Saint-André. A highly intelligent man, Philippe understood that Toulon were at the beginning of their European journey. The players did not comprehend the intensity required to win at Thomond Park. Philippe was trying to help his team understand what it takes to win in the most challenging club competition on the planet.
Saint-André told me that he was bringing his team to Thomond Park to learn. It was not my place to advise such a wonderful coach, however, several very large red lights started flashing in my brain.
Having battled against Munster many times, I knew that rule number one of playing the “red team” is that, if you turn up with a mindset, even a fraction below them – and you know Munster will be red lining – you will be defeated. Badly.
The only way to win in Limerick is to out-Munster Munster. Passion, intensity, accuracy and work rates have to be at the highest levels. Needless to say, aggression is paramount. If you go to Limerick to learn a lesson, the education will involve a lot of pain. You have to go to Limerick with a singular focus on winning. Whatever the price of victory, you have to be prepared to pay it and in Limerick the price is always high.
That day, after Toulon got their collective bums smacked, that version of Toulon understood the reason why Thomond Park is one of rugby’s toughest environments. Today will be no different.
This Toulon team, under the supervision of Fabien Galthié, will arrive in Munster under no illusions.
I had the privilege of coaching against Galthié against both Stade Français and France. Last year I spoke with him over a meal and what a joy it was. Educated, charming and possessing a razor-sharp rugby intellect, I am convinced that one of French rugby’s greatest scrumhalves will evolve into one of their finest coaches.
That does not mean the road will be easy. Coaching a team of all-stars like Toulon is tough. How does a team assembled from around the globe, with players who have already achieved great things, combine to create its own unique culture?
Developing a team DNA in that environment is a tough gig. Winning cultures takes time to grow. Both Munster and Leinster have powerful cultures built on the foundations of 20 years of high performance.
Two weeks ago, Toulon were defeated by Oyonnax, who are last in the French Top 14. As is human nature, when the brown stuff hits the fan, everyone blames the coach and Fabien and his staff got more than their fair share. You can’t talk your way out of a bad loss, you have to act your way out of it.
In their next match Toulon smashed Clermont 49-0. That is bad news for Munster because Toulon are angry.
For more than a decade the Toulon president, Mourad Boudjellal, has ploughed tens of millions of his hard-earned euros into the club he loves. I admire his passion and his long-term support of rugby.
If I could respectfully suggest something to president Boudjellal, it would be to advise him to give Fabien the time required to grow a high-performance culture that is player centred and coach driven.
For Toulon to return to greatness, the players must be responsible for their actions on the field and not blame the coaches.
Saracens are a great example of this. Mark McCall and his staff have just had their contracts extended. Saracens know that all winning sporting dynasties have the longevity of senior staff at the core of their success. The Saracens team motto is “Let’s make memories”. It is all about the players, but the coaches drive the programme.
Nice guys can come first
After all the success and the accolades that have rightfully been heaped upon him, McCall remains the same modest, happy, wonderful man I first met 20 years ago. He is living proof that nice guys can come first. He still answers to his nickname of “Smally” but he and his organisation are giants. Saracens fully understand they have a great coach, who knows how to win in Europe and they are not letting him go anywhere.
As for Leinster, Leo Cullen has his players being true to the Blues running game. The passing, off-loading, support play and ambition has been outstanding.
I was at the Altrad Stadium for the dead-rubber against Montpellier, except someone forgot to tell Leinster it was dead. They played scintillating rugby. I sat among a group of Montpellier supporters. While their generosity in offering me combinations of wine, cheese, cake, coffee and biscuits would have my cardiologist highly concerned, they recognised that, unlike Montpellier, Leinster are playing for something more than themselves.
That mythical concept, when a group is performing with synergy and playing for the club and all it stands for. Its supporters, coaches, parents, partners, the clubs’ traditions and the players’ opportunity to become part of the history of the club they grew up watching. They are tapping into the club’s DNA.
Munster and Leinster must dig deep into that cultural DNA this weekend to find two powerful performances to overcome world-class opposition, prepared by excellent coaches, who know the demands of winning in knock-out European rugby.