Wednesday 28 June 2017

In France, revenge is a dish best served cold

Frankie Sheahan has front line experience of the best and the worst of taking on Gallic opposition

F RANCE had long been a graveyard for Irish rugby teams when I travelled there with Munster in 1996. I will never forget sitting on the bench and watching in mortification as Toulouse ran in nine tries against us and won 60-9.

It was our second game in France in the European Cup (we lost to Castres in the first season of the competition) and it took another few years to record our first win there against Colomiers in the 1999/'00 season.

But the day that really changed things for us in the Heineken Cup came later in that same season. We caused a sensation when we went to France and beat Toulouse in the semi-final. The next Irish team to achieve this at the knock-out stages was Leinster in 2006, when Toulouse were once again the victims, against all the odds in a cracking quarter-final.

That game was very similar to our win six years earlier. Both were very fast and open and won comprehensively by the visiting underdogs through runaway tries from the backs. On both occasions, though, it is fair to say that the French team was over-confident, bordering on complacent.

Now, for the word of warning. When I returned to Toulouse with Munster in 2003 to play them for the second time in the knock-out stages, they were ready for us. They had learned their lesson and played a tight, controlled and calculated game to edge us out of the competition by 13 points to 12.

I remember that game so well. Le Stadium de Toulouse is an amazing venue and despite having thousands of Munster supporters there (scattered strategically by Toulouse to dilute their noise as much as possible), the sound of the drums and the atmosphere was immense, almost overwhelming. When playing at that level, you become accustomed to ignoring the noise, but in this ground you can't help but feel the pressure.

We left nothing behind us that day. We threw all we had at Toulouse and defended like our lives depended on it, managing to slow up their ball so much that they were unable to operate at their normal level. We led for most of the game until the 74th minute when they succeeded in getting fast ball for once and substitute Jean-Baptiste Elissalde set up Freddie Michelak to score in the corner. To rub salt into the wounds, the try was converted from the touchline. We tried a few late drop goals but we were exhausted from the humidity and never really got close enough to give Ronan O'Gara a realistic chance. Some of the guys lost up to five kilos of body weight that day from their efforts.

Having played in those games in 2000 and 2003, it was clear to me that the Toulouse players respected us more the second time. The surprise factor was gone.

Leinster will be playing Toulouse for the second time in the knock-out stages on Saturday, so will Toulouse be ready for them this time? It may be four years since Leinster cut loose, racking up 41 points against the French, but I can guarantee you that Toulouse have not forgotten that. I can also guarantee you that there will be zero complacency from their players this time.

Interestingly, Alan Gaffney was our coach that day in 2003 and this time he will return as assistant coach with a far stronger Leinster side than the one from 2006. Gaffney, more than anyone, will know what to expect from Toulouse.

One lesson learned after our loss in 2003 was the difference in the depth of the squads. Sure, we could have won on the day, but Toulouse had the luxury of being able to unleash an international quality bench in the last quarter, making six changes with guys like William Servat, Finau Maka, Cedric Heymans and Elissalde coming in. Munster made one change, in the 80th minute, Jason Holland for Rob Henderson.

Leinster have quality players on the bench like Malcolm O'Kelly, Bernard Jackman, Fergus McFadden, Stephen Keogh and Cian Healy and I don't think Michael Cheika will be slow to use these guys.

Wednesday night's loss to Connacht could prove to be a godsend for Cheika. Leinster looked lethargic, disinterested and clearly were not up for the scrap that always goes with playing Connacht away. The sight of Brian O'Driscoll holding his knee and Girvan Dempsey icing his neck will worry the coach, but they have ten days to put this right. It is also worth mentioning that Connacht beat Bourgoin 23-20 two weeks ago and Bourgoin beat Toulouse last weekend. Given Connacht's current form, Leinster's defeat is not as catastrophic as it might have been in the past. If anything, I see it as a wake-up call.

Leinster are on the cusp of becoming a great side. Only Martin Johnson's Leicester have managed to win this competition back-to-back and Leinster have shown greater consistency in the Magners League and Heineken Cup in the last two seasons than any other side -- even allowing for a couple of hiccups.

The question is: can they go on from here to create their own legend? To beat a team like Toulouse on their home soil, you need to play with a level of intensity and aggression that is second to none. Toulouse will expect the skill level, but their one fear will be of 15 mad Irishmen so it is important not to disappoint them.

In the first half of Toulouse's quarter-final win over Stade Francais, the crowd was virtually anonymous. In my experience at this venue, stunning the Toulouse crowd into silence early on goes a huge way towards winning a game of this magnitude and that is what Leinster need to do. That's why a solid defence, especially early on, is vital. The pace of the game will also be crucial. Leinster must play at a high tempo when they have the ball and slow things down when Toulouse have it.

If it were not for the change in format in the French championship -- the top two go through and the next four play-off -- Toulouse would not even qualify for the Heineken Cup next season for the first time in the history of the competition.

But this is still a vastly experienced team with Grand Slam winners like Clement Poitrenaud, Yannick Jauzion, Servat and Thierry Dusautoir. Toulouse got their revenge on Munster and while I think Leinster are a better team, and would dearly love to see an all-Ireland final in Paris, my gut feeling is that Toulouse will win.

Frankie Sheahan scored nine tries in 55 appearances for Munster in the Heineken Cup

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