Munster backed into a corner but will come out swinging against Toulouse

Heineken Champions Cup: French side sitting atop the Top 14, but could be toppled


Kick-off 3pm
Venue Thomond Park
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It may be a dog-eared script, but it invariably stands up to repeated viewing. So here Munster are then, backed into a European corner once more in time-honoured fashion.

This time they are coming off another defeat to their dearest and bitterest rivals, with criticism ringing in their ears, not least from former players, and with their season effectively on the line against European aristocracy in four-time winners Toulouse, the reigning French champions who sit regally atop the Top 14.

Fear concentrates the mind, and Munster have been here before.


"Ya, that's pretty much it, isn't it?" agrees Niall Scannell with a wry grin. "When you say it like that, what other choice do we have now but to come out swinging? That is what Munster do and that is what we will have to do.

“Don’t get me wrong, we would prefer not to be putting ourselves in these positions but, like I say, it is a great chance of redemption this weekend that you don’t ordinarily get after losing a final.

“Sometimes you just really got to dwell on it and do a pre-season but, yes, we are in a bit of a corner now, I’m sure Toulouse know that, and equally we know that we are dealing with one of the superpowers of European rugby coming over here with some of the best X-factor in the world looking to do the same.

“So yes, we are certainly after putting ourselves in that scenario and we are definitely going to come out swinging, I think no one would expect anything different from us.”

They've also been hit by the loss of their talismanic captain and go-to line-out man Peter O'Mahony due to the thigh laceration he suffered against Leinster. Jack O'Donoghue replaces him, while props David Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer are promoted the front row in an otherwise unchanged team, with Fineen Wycherley back in the squad after recovering from a neck injury.

Already with half a dozen injured backs, Toulouse director of rugby Ugo Mola lost centre Sofiane Guitoune for six to nine months last week due to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in a first ever home defeat by Montpellier.

Travel restrictions

They are also without Springboks’ backrower Rynhardt Elstadt due to Irish Government travel restrictions after a recent trip to South Africa. “I wish he had rubbed shoulders with CJ Stander,” Mola quipped, of a player who is effectively Munster’s equivalent.

Yet in making seven changes in personnel and three positional from a week ago, Mola and his Toulouse boot room have still put together a strong-looking side, and recalls for the French Six Nations quartet of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand is a statement of intent.

Three of them will today be seeking a third win on Irish soil in three different settings. Dupont, Baille and Marchand were all part of their club's 29-22 first round win over Ulster in the Kingspan Stadium last December as well as France's 15-13 win over Ireland in the Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium, while Romain Ntamack also played in the former.

However, the extension of France’s Six Nations caused by the rescheduling of their game against Scotland has done Toulouse no favours.

It means that Dupont, Baille and Marchand all come into this game on the back of three Six Nations matches with France on consecutive weekends, while Ntamack, an unused sub against England, played in the back-to-back games against Wales and Scotland.

The front-row trio and Dupont last played for Toulouse in the 59-0 win over Agen 10 weeks ago, while Ntamack has played just one comeback game for Toulouse, against Brive four weeks ago.

They are not machines: witness how weary Tadhg Beirne and Stander looked last week. Against that, Conor Murray, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway ought to benefit from last week's outing, as should Munster collectively. That Pro14 final may not have gone the way they wanted. It would have left some more than others deflated and maybe even a little demoralised for a day or two afterwards.

But Munster have had time to refocus on the competition where they find their inner selves and very often keep their season afloat beyond early April.

Wake-up call

Since the 60-19 wake-up call in Toulouse 24 seasons ago, the last five meetings between these two have all been knock-out ties. Munster have won four of them, including the 2008 final and two quarter-final thrashings here seven and four seasons ago.

The once-mighty Toulouse were on the wrong side of the mountaintop for the first of them, and were virtually back at base camp for the second, whereas now they have power aplenty up front and game-breakers like Dupont, Ntamack and Cheslin Kolbe, whose sidestepping ability will keep Keith Earls on his toes.

Yet, whereas Toulouse are reacquainting themselves with each other to a large degree for the first time in 2½ months, last week’s outing may result in Munster being a little more fine-tuned, notably a reduction in missed tackles, or else they’re goosed. And their need is acute.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Jack O'Donoghue, CJ Stander (capt).

Replacements: Kevin O'Byrne, James Cronin, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Fineen Wycherley, Craig Casey, JJ Hanrahan, Chris Cloete.

TOULOUSE: Maxime Médard; Cheslin Kolbe, Zack Holmes, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand (capt), Charlie Faumuina, Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold, Francois Cros, Selevasio Tolofua, Jerome Kaino.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Clément Castets, Dorian Aldegheri, Joe Tekori, Thibaud Flament, Alban Placines, Baptiste Germain, Dimitri Delibes.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Forecast: Munster to win

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times