European royalty collide as Munster eye Aviva semi-final
European royalty will collide once more in Thomond Park in a quarter-final this spring, but much has changed since Munster and Toulouse last met here at the same stage three years ago.
Munster 22 Racing 92 10
Despite Munster's thumping 47-23 victory that day, they would lose the subsequent semi-final and for the next two seasons suffer two successive pool stage exits under the guidance of two different head coaches.
"Rewind to four months ago and nobody was interested in this team," said Ronan O'Gara.
"This team had lost its identity and look at it now."
O'Gara was on the 2008 side who collected their second title by beating Toulouse in a gripping Cardiff final (16-13), during a golden period for these two famous names who then dominated the continent.
The French side have won more titles than anyone else (4) and appeared in more finals (6) - Munster are next on the list having appeared in four finals - but like their old Irish foes, Toulouse have suffered a dip in fortunes and also exited at the pool stages in the last two seasons.
"They're starting to be the Toulouse of old and we've been watching them over the last few months," warned Connacht captain John Muldoon last night.
"They'll be a hard side to beat in this competition."
The sides' rivalry predates that 2008 meeting.
Munster's epic semi-final win (31-25) in the broiling Bordeaux heat in 2000 remains a classic; three years later, Toulouse would earn some modicum of revenge with a narrow 13-12 semi-final win in France.
Three years on from their quarter-final caning here at the hands of the then Rob Penney-coached side, the outfit now led by lock legend Fabien Pelous and captained by Thierry Dusautoir will again be outsiders, but a much more dangerous prospect.
"Munster will be no easy task," agreed their Scottish international second-row Richie Gray. "But we will look forward to going there."
For Munster, the door is now tantalisingly ajar to allow supporters to prepare for an Aviva semi-final, if Saracens can beat Glasgow on the other side of the draw.
"When we started seven months ago, I said let's maximise this potential and see where we can go," said coach Rassie Erasmus (below). "Now it's put us into a situation where we're playing a home quarter-final.
"I know there are big things that can go wrong. We lost James Cronin probably with his thumb and Dave Kilcoyne is going to the national set-up for a while.
"Thomas du Toit is going back, so in certain positions we'll be thin. It's our job as coaches and managers to see how fit a squad we can get when those quarter-finals come.
"We've put ourselves in position now and no we want to see if we can kick on."
Munster - S Zebo (I Keatley 70); A Conway, J Taute (F Sailli 48), R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 71); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 13), N Scannell (R Marshall 61), J Ryan (T Du Toit 68-72), J Kleyn (B Holland 52), D Ryan, P O'Mahony (c), T O'Donnell, R Copeland.
Racing 92 - B Dulin; T Thomas, H Chavancy, E Dussartre (A Vulivuli 63), M Andreu; B Dambielle (F Pourteau 63), M Machenaud capt (J Hart 74); E Ben Arous (J Brugnaut 55), C Chat, B Tameifuna (C Gomes Sa 31-76), M Carizza, L Nakarawa (A Williams 66), Y Nyanga (C Masoe 65), M Voisin, S Fa'aso'oy.
Ref - M Mitrea (FIR).