Well-primed Munster face down veteran French gunslingers

Aging Toulouse may have one last face off left in them as corral of Thomond Park awaits

Munster’s CJ Stander will be expected to run at Toulouse in Thomond Park on Saturday. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.

Munster’s CJ Stander will be expected to run at Toulouse in Thomond Park on Saturday. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.

 

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP RUGBY

Munster v Toulouse 

Kick off: 5.45pm

Venue: Thomond Park

On TV: Live on Sky Sports 2

When Ronan O’Gara first encountered Munster in the flesh as a coach with Racing, he was especially struck with the difference in “athleticism” between his former province and the Parisians, with their retinue of veteran ex-All Blacks.

Following Munster’s 32-7 win in the re-arranged game at the Stade Yves du Manoir last January, a slightly taken aback O’Gara admitted: “I knew they would be good and watching them up close they were really good, yeh. They were really good.

“They’ve great detail in their game and the biggest thing that struck me was athletes in their prime against fellas that are in their 30s. You look at CJ (Stander), Peter O’Mahony, Conor (Murray) was a class above everyone else on the pitch I thought, and they just schooled us in every department really.”

A similar scenario could apply on Saturday. Toulouse, average age 29-and-a-half, have six players in their 30s. Munster, average age 27, have only two, both in the secondrow. They have 10 players aged between 26 to 29, compared to Toulouse’s four.

Toulouse do have a much improved set-piece and mauling platform to work off this season. In a bid to rediscover their past, they are even the tournament’s leading off-loaders, and aside from the heavy artillery’s ability to run hard and straight, their forwards look to offload in tight channels like Toulouse of yore.

They can also use the blindside, attack from deep or counter-attack, especially with Maxime Medard in good form lately. But there is a disconnect at halfback, and again last week when leading 11-3 away to Bordeaux only to lose 20-11, have not demonstrated the dynamism to maintain their game over 80 minutes.

Word is that their trio of 35-year-olds, Thierry Dusautoir, Census Johnston and Patricio Albacete, will all retire at the end of the season, and that Luke McAlister is bound for Toulon.

Aging sheriff

That said, like an ageing sheriff facing off a younger gunslinger, Toulouse could have one big game in them. They will rally around their captain and talisman Dusautoir, the one-time World Player of the Year who missed the quarter-final rout here three seasons ago.

Yes, they’re tenth in the Top 14 and set to miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 1977. Yes, they were deservedly beaten by Connacht in the Sportsground and were fortunate to escape with the requisite win by more than five points in the final weekend of the pool stages, thereby progressing by dint of two wins over Zebre.

However, there is also the memory of that penultimate weekend at the Ricoh Arena, when they rolled back the years and were only beaten in the last play.

But if conditions and the sometimes fussy referee, JP Doyle, allows for a high tempo game, then that is more likely to suit Munster.

It’s a bit of a myth that, back in the day, a dry track suited Toulouse and Munster were at their best in the mud and rain. After all, it’s now fully 17 seasons since Munster outscored and outran Touloue in the blistering heat of Bordeaux in the semi-final clash that, to a degree, spawned the Red Army.

But in any event, a dry day assuredly suits Munster more than this comparatively lumbering Toulouse side.

Munster will want to keep the ball in play, keep running at Toulouse through Stander, David Kilcoyne, O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell et al, with Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal to keep things ticking, keep recycling the ball and eventually this low-risk but highly accurate rugby that has become their hallmark will reap a dividend.

Hence, it’s assuredly good news that the days rain is forecast to have passed by when the sides make their gladiatorial entrance this evening. It won’t be for the faint-hearted. It never is hereabouts, and all the better for that.

But if Munster’s heads are all in the right place, and everything about their unfurling season strongly suggests they will be, and they generate the same kind of intensity that ultimately Racing could not live with, then the same should apply to Toulouse.

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O’Callaghan, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, Francis Saili, Andrew Conway. 

TOULOUSE: Maxime Médard; Yoann Huget, Florian Fritz, Gael Fickou, Paul Perez; Jean-Marc Doussain, Sébastien Bézy; Cyril Baille, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Census Johnston, Richie Gray, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Yacouba Camara, Francois Cros. Replacements: Julien Marchand, Gurthro Steenkamp, Dorian Aldegheri, Talalelei Gray, Piula Faasalele, Joe Tekori, Luke McAlister, Arthur Bonneval.

Referee: JP Doyle (England).

Previous meetings: (1996/’97) Toulouse 60 Munster 19. (1999/2000, s/f) Toulouse 25 Munster 31. (2002/’03, s/f) Toulouse 13 Munster 12. (2007/’08, final) Munster 16 Toulouse 13. (2013/’14, q/f) Munster 47 Toulouse 23. Results so far: Munster – 38-17 v Glasgow (h); 38-0 v Leicester (h), 16-18 v Leicester (a), 32-7 v Racing (a), 14-12 v Glasgow (a), 22-10 v Racing (h). Toulouse – 21-23 v Connacht (a), 20-20 v Wasps (h), 36-6 v Zebre (a), 54-15 v Zebre (h), 14-17 v Wasps (a), 19-10 v Connacht (h). Leading points scorers: Munster – Tyler Bleyendaal 73. Toulouse – Sébastien Bézy 29. Leading try scorers: Munster – Simon Zebo 4, Jaco Taute 3. Toulouse – Arthur Bonneval 4, Gael Gickou, Yoann Huget 3 each.Forecast: Munster to win.

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