Published 13/10/2010 | 05:00
MUNSTER'S status as European aristocrats after a decade of Heineken Cup achievement is unimpeachable. But when it comes to budgets, Saturday's visitors to Thomond Park leave them in the ha'penny place.
With an estimated turnover of €19m and a wage bill in and around the €7m mark, Toulon are among the wealthiest sides in rugby and the balance-sheet disparity with their hosts is daunting.
Bankrolled by Mourad Boudjellal -- who made his millions in the cartoon business -- Toulon have been throwing their financial weight about for some time, having had the likes of Tana Umaga, George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens on their salary sheet as they set about gaining a foothold in the top flight of French rugby.
Since that was achieved, the same financial clout has allowed Boudjellal to assemble a squad of superstars that would do justice to one of his comic- strip fantasies, with Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi, Carl Hayman, George Smith and Joe van Niekerk representing some of the most talented and well-established names in the world game.
Munster have had a smattering of glamorous overseas signings over the years -- Christian Cullen, Doug Howlett and Jean de Villiers -- but their success has been driven by parochial power through an identification with the jersey and province rather than from acquired overseas talent.
Coach Tony McGahan knows that his side will need to draw on those core values on Saturday, as they face into what is acknowledged as a must-win game following last weekend's reverse to London Irish in Reading.
"You're dealing with two opposite ends of the spectrum when you're looking at environment and culture," said McGahan in Limerick yesterday.
"Munster is home-grown players who have been born, grown up, and gone to school together. They've lived in the one area all of their lives and have built friendships and relationships not only between themselves but also with the community.
"That's against a side who have been bankrolled to be put together. There are many different ways of bringing success and they (Toulon) have certainly started that journey over the last two or three years.
"They achieved it last year with their results in the Top 14 and also in the Challenge Cup and this year they have set the bar higher with the calibre of player they have brought in. Those are very different ways of approaching professional rugby -- it is a great challenge.
"For us, that collective will and the environment the players have been part of and excelled in, and put their own selves inside to make sure it grows, those sort of things give you the edge in big games. We're looking for that to play a part on Saturday evening."
Munster took an expansive approach to the Madejski Stadium, implemented from their opening possession deep in their own 22.
There were definite signs of the attacking potential they possess -- with Keith Earls and Johne Murphy looking particularly potent -- but the Exiles' Dave Ellis-organised defence was able to contain the pressure until the last, bonus-point clinching play of the game.
There is an expectation this week that Munster will attempt to batter the French at close quarters and play the possession game before expressing themselves further out as the game progresses.
We will not know the approach until Saturday but McGahan has highlighted the importance of getting the balance right.
"We have the ability to play whatever is in front of us and that's the most important thing," he said. "You build a game around what you think the strengths of the group are and then you adapt that to the environment: the conditions, home, away and what the opposition brings -- make what you will of that.
"When opportunities present themselves, you need to take them and the players have great belief in what they are doing.
"A couple of times (against London Irish) we probably went one or two phases more than we should have and then you saw in the back 20 (minutes) when we needed to catch the game, we needed to bring ourselves from deep inside our 22 all the way up to their 22 -- a number of times through off-loads, through ball-in-hand, through passing. There's a number of ways to do that and the challenge for every side is to get the balance of that right and make correct decisions at the appropriate time."
Whichever way the game unfolds, one player certain to have a profound influence on proceedings is Ronan O'Gara. The Munster out-half was right on top of his game against Irish: his passing and kicking were crisp and assured, while the opposition got no joy from their policy of getting their big carriers to single him out.
"Ronan has done a number of wonderful things over a long period of time and his start to this season has been particularly pleasing for everyone," said McGahan.
"He's playing with great confidence. His pace onto the ball, his ability to get his hands on the ball all game, was instrumental; he drove us up the field a number of times by having four or five involvements.
"And that was just on the attack side. You saw his defence and the way he put himself about; you saw the kick-chase: he kicked it down the field, chased it 60 metres and then he was the one who slid in to put pressure on their player to kick out on the full. His competitive nature was in full view and I think his start to the season has been excellent."
Reports from France suggest O'Gara is high on the shopping lists of the cash-heavy Top 14 clubs but, for the Corkman and his team-mates, Saturday is about parochial pride coming to the fore when most needed and that can carry more clout than the heaviest of wallets.