Munster 'biggest game you can get' -- Contepomi
Published 13/01/2011 | 05:00
He's swopped Temple Bar for Toulon, Molly Malone for the Med. But, as they say, you can take the boy out of Dublin, but you can't take Dublin out of the boy.
A warm smile spreads across the face of Felipe Contepomi when you ask him about matches with Munster. He has a simple response. "One of the best things I have experienced in my rugby career," he says, recalling past battles between his beloved Leinster and Munster.
"They are the best memories. Those were very happy times for me."
And now comes another barn-storming clash with the men of Munster, except that Contepomi will be wearing a different shirt this time. Will it seem strange?
Possibly, he says, cheerfully conceding that he is still in regular contact with some of his former playing pals from Leinster, and Dublin will always hold a special place in his heart.
But all eyes will focus on the Stade Mayol this Sunday when Toulon will attempt to put an abrupt end to Munster's Heineken hopes for this season. A black and white scenario? Contepomi thinks so.
"They know it is a must-win game for them here. If they win, even by just one point, then they have London Irish at home with five points available and qualification is in their pockets. But if they lose by one point, then they are out of the competition."
If we are talking about teams on a tightrope, then include Toulon on that list. For no-one knows better than Contepomi the challenge Munster bring to every Heineken Cup occasion.
He has witnessed it time and again at close hand, and is filled with respect for a quality he suggests has been in the domain of Munster for several years.
"For us to play a team like Munster, one of the best teams with the most history in the Heineken Cup, is tough for us. For, especially in this competition, they know exactly what they need from every single game. When it comes to qualifying they are the experts in that aspect. They know precisely what they must do, what will be enough, what is essential. Time and again they have shown themselves as masters of this situation."
This may well be the case on Sunday, too. Not least for the reason that, as Contepomi admits, the Heineken Cup is a new adventure for Toulon and making the switch seamlessly from French Championship Top 14 rugby to the Heineken Cup is not straightforward.
"Yes, it is difficult to do," he accepts. "Especially here, because the Championship in France is very well respected and Toulon hasn't been in the Heineken Cup before. It is something totally new, and people don't understand what we are facing. That is something we have to change, but it will take time."
Yet the challenge is there and professionals such as Contepomi relish it. Concussed a couple of weeks ago and rested since, he has declared himself fit and ready for the Munster match, an inevitability given his respect for them and the memories of past battles.
Yet it is by no means certain Toulon will select him, particularly from the start. A place on the bench may be the best he can hope for. But whatever time he might enter the fray, the Argentinian dynamo is eager to share in the action.
"These are the sort of matches that drive you on. Yes, it will be awkward but that is the challenge. Whenever I played against them, it was always the biggest game you could get. It didn't matter whether it was the Heineken Cup or Magners League; it cannot get bigger than a match against them.
"But it will be different playing Munster in a Toulon shirt. It's not only about Munster, but more about Leinster and the derby match. Those are the games you want to play in. People feel the tension for that entire week and after the game, the supporters keep talking about it, perhaps for a year or more, which happened after our Heineken Cup semi-finals against them."
Toulon do have one major incentive, exclusive to them, going into Sunday's tie. The memory of their 45-18 thrashing at Thomond Park in the autumn resonates.
"It was a bad day for us, but it showed us the reality of the competition. This is the first time Toulon has played this competition and it could not have been tougher going there. Munster knew they had to win and they gave us a good lesson in knowing what it was all about.
"You never want to lose by that many points, but if you can take something positive out of those games and learn from them, maybe they are in your favour in the end. And for sure, when you lose like that, you want to get it back."
Undeniably, Toulon have players in certain positions who can hurt Munster. Truth to tell, Jonny Wilkinson's kicking at goal of late has been erratic; seven out of 12 against Biarritz and two badly missed late drop-goal attempts in Paris against Racing Metro last Sunday night that cost Toulon a draw in the Top 14 match. Yet Munster can't rely on Wilkinson continuing to misfire.
Then there is New Zealand tight-head prop Carl Hayman, arguably the best in the world at his trade. Toulon have kept him in cotton wool for their last two games, ready to unleash him on an uncertain Munster scrum.
Handling him might be a tough ask, but as the ex-Leinster star says: "It's not only about one player. The front-row will not only have him -- we have a number of quality international players there.
"Hopefully, we can use that strength in depth and take advantage in that area. But Munster will have seen that and will try to get it right. I expect them to be strong enough and they will be clever in the whole way they play the game. They know what to do to win games."
But then there is Contepomi's inside knowledge of the Irish side. "It is about playing against them and knowing what you can get and how to go about it," he added. "The key to Munster is that they don't have one crucial player whom you can target. Whoever gets into that red jersey does the job. That is what makes them a very good team; it is not about one player you can name.
"If Paul O'Connell is not there, Mick O'Driscoll can play and will produce an outstanding performance. That is what makes them special."