Munster must unleash attack force
It says much for Munster's lingering reputation in Europe, and a little about the slow decline of the once powerful Toulouse as a pre-eminent member of European club royalty, that even this early in the week, some bookmakers have the Thomond Park outfit as four-points favourites for their quarter-final date.
A residual respect for the achievements of the 2006 and '08 champions remains throughout the sport, despite their relative struggles in recent times when they have been shadowed by Leinster's irrepressible emergence to supersede them by dint of annexing three titles since '09.
But last season's stunning upset of then much-fancied Harlequins on their own turf, backed up by a characteristically sterling show of defiance in the heartland of the Auvergne in the semi-final, brooks optimism that Munster still retain the courageous, indomitable spirit of yore.
Paul O'Connell was dubious at the outset of this season's campaign as to whether a largely inexperienced side could augment the promise borne out by last term's confidence-boosting run to the semi-final.
In the wake of some errant displays this season, chiefly the opening-day reverse in Edinburgh, that inability to supplement inner belief with the chest-thumping bravado of old meant a sense of uncertainty identified by their talisman lingered this time around.
And yet Rob Penney's men still qualified with a game in hand, securing a home quarter-final too which, even against such a formidable dynasty as that paraded by Guy Noves' men, suggests that more than merely a survivalist instinct thrives within the Munster breast.
But Munster will need to be at their utmost this week to emulate their '08 final triumph against the star-studded Toulousains. Although recent evidence can often by shredded merely by the opening, cacophonous bars of that rousing Heineken Cup musical fanfare before kick-off, you feel that Munster have yet to fully convince they can justify the confidence of the turf accountants. Key issues will need to be delivered upon if Munster are to equal, if not better, last season's campaign.
POWER AND PACE
It was generally accepted by the Munster brethren that their attack left much to be desired last Saturday against Leinster, the only recently available and relative evidence upon which to judge their progress.
Penney's men are in the unenviable position of having their best attacking threats – the fresh, eager duo, restored from recent injury, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo – isolated on the wing.
Although he expressed confidence in the experiment which pitched Denis Hurley at inside-centre, few remained fully convinced that this provided an answer to Munster's lack of penetration and cohesion.
South African wing Gerhard van der Heever made an impression when he emerged late in the piece and the quandary for Munster now would seem to be that they need to shoehorn their best attacking players into the most likely position to attack.
That could mean a switch for either Earls or Zebo to the full-back slot, perhaps finding some role for the South African from the start, as Felix Jones seemed to offer little in attack.
It is a pity that there has not been more time offered to allow the juxtaposition of Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as dove-tailing first and second five-eight options. There is little variety and guile in the Munster attack as it currently stands.
Munster players were forced to run laterally far too often, a mixture of poor pack protection and inchoate attacking shape which, against a tough tackling Toulouse side, would be rugby suicide.
These are mostly personnel driven, with Peter O'Mahony clearly still struggling to cope with the hamstring issues that contributed significantly towards what was, in the context of a superb Championship, a muted display in Paris. If he is not 100pc fit, Munster will be significantly handicapped, particularly as Donnacha Ryan is almost certain to miss out as he battles a lingering, puzzling foot problem.
Despite the positive vibes emanating from Penney regarding CJ Stander's performance, he is not a major factor at the breakdown and it was in this area that Tommy O'Donnell was also worryingly limited against Leinster.
His performance must improve to the levels demonstrated consistently last season.
Given that their attack is prone to malfunctioning, an inability to secure any decent platform will further inhibit Munster, as their ploy will presumably be to move the Toulouse pack around the park. If, say, O'Mahony, O'Donnell and Stander can all start and contribute performances towards the height of expectations, Munster will have a more than even chance of competing.
Anthony Foley was always a keen student of the 'Munster Senior Cup' approach to knock-out rugby – the steady accumulation of 3-6-9 scoreboard pressure, slowly twisting the knife regardless of opponents' status.
On Saturday, Foley would have admired the prospect of Munster indulging in this particular aspect of performance, regardless of their lack of penetration out wide. Backed by a dominant set-piece, Munster took full advantage of their hard-earned momentum to build what should have been a formidable, match-winning 12-3 advantage.
But as their back-row wilted and their scrum was afforded less latitude despite its obvious pre-eminence, Munster allowed their opponents off the hook.
A repeat performance will not be good enough this weekend, even if Nigel Owens will be more consistent in rewarding a powerful scrum – Toulouse, though, will have a much more potent eight than the weakened combination confronted last weekend.
Munster have to work harder than most other teams to eke out scores and their failure to spend any decent swathes of time in the Leinster '22', bar one fruitless multi-phase battering in the final quarter, will have furrowed the brows of the brains trust.
The entire delivery of performance will need to be ratcheted up a level if they are to have any chance of thwarting the French.