Monday 24 July 2017

Tony Ward: Toulon stars will test the thomond factor to very limit

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The formula is fairly well established at this stage -- win your home games, pick up a victory on the road and take any bonus point going. Do all this and you're in with a shout of the knock-outs.

An aggregate points total of 20 is pretty much the bottom-line total to make the last eight. Over the last two years, only Stade Francais (18) and Northampton (19) have qualified for the business end on a final pool total less than this.

Ideally, therefore -- and in order to avoid a fraught final weekend -- the goal is five wins out of six to virtually ensure quarter-final qualification. This being the case, there is little room for error for those teams already 'one down' from the opening series.

For sure, there are no medals handed out in October, but equally, lose your way two weeks running and it's pretty close to curtains before the premier competition effectively gets underway.

For Munster, therefore, today's showdown at Thomond Park is massive. How many times have we said that in times past -- and on almost every must-win occasion, they come up trumps.

Toulon -- the Manchester City/Chelsea of Top 14 rugby -- is a wealthy, star-studded, multi-national and multi-talented squad, who will not be inclined to follow the usual script in Limerick today.

This is a clash -- much like Leicester in the final match at the old stadium -- which has danger written all over it. Munster, like Ulster, have been winning comfortably in the Magners League -- the Leinster game apart -- but without playing particularly well. Prior to that defeat at the Aviva, they had gone back to basics in doing the simple things well.

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Alas at the Madejski last week, the line-out failed to spark, while the scrum was largely redundant. Today the call is to revert to Thomond Park type and do whatever it takes to enlist the support of the 16th man. It's still a mighty intimidating place -- particularly for those who haven't experienced it before.

Quite how Philippe Saint-Andre utilises the very different talents of star turns Jonny Wilkinson and Felipe Contepomi remains to be seen. He is starting with the multi-talented Argentinian, so, at least in the early stages, expect fireworks from the visitors. If he needs to introduce percentage rugby, then Wilkinson could well be called off the bench.

Denis Leamy, Donncha O'Callaghan and Co will relish the renewal of hostilities with Contepomi, while his head-to-head with Ronan O'Gara will add some extra spice. With Contepomi it's personal -- if Wilkinson enters the fray, it's professional.

There's also, of course, the added incentive of the forthcoming Autumn Internationals.

As of now, Jonny Sexton is in pole position to face the Springboks first up, but events in Limerick and London could have a bearing on Declan Kidney's mindset for November.

O'Gara was one of the few to deliver anywhere close to form in Reading. He -- more than anybody -- was responsible for the bonus point, courtesy of Sam Tuitupou's try against London Irish at the death. He nursed the two-time champions back to a bonus point to which they shouldn't have had any right. But that's what makes the Munster the special brand it is when it comes to the Heineken Cup.

Today it's all hands to the pump, with the injury woes of Paul O'Connell and Tomas O'Leary (two totemic figures) doubled on by the bans for reckless tackles inflicted upon Lifeimi Mafi and Tuitupou in recent weeks.

This macho 'South Sea Island' defence is just not good enough. Spear and straight-arm tackling represent a blight on the modern game. Let's hear no more mutterings of 'red mist descending' or they're 'good guys' really. Whether it's Mafi, Tuitupou, Alan Quinlan, Shane Jennings, or whoever is cited and found guilty as charged, the reality is they have let themselves and their team-mates down through unprofessional behaviour.

Tony McGahan has been denied the services of both players today and that was not part of the deal when each signed on the dotted line. So, spare us the calls for sympathy and let us have instead, from all those privileged to earn a living from this great game, a much more professional approach in future.

As for Leinster? Without Brian O'Driscoll, a rugged examination against the Springbok Saracen All Stars awaits. Despite the soundings in mid-week, common sense has prevailed and much though I know the player would have wanted it otherwise, he will rest the damaged hamstring.

Indeed, given the nature of the injury, it would be surprising if the period of recovery doesn't extend to another week at least. Even allowing for the Ireland skipper's capacity to recover from injury quicker than most, the hamstring is not to be treated lightly -- particularly for one who relies so heavily on explosive movement.

Obviously, we are not comparing like with like, but the return of Leo Cullen to the squad helps cushion the blow of O'Driscoll's loss in other ways. Jamie Heaslip stepped up to the captaincy convincingly last week, but as of now, Cullen is the acknowledged leader. He's a grafter who goes about his business in the most down to earth and workmanlike way.

His presence in the north London dressing-room, and one presumes on the sacred sward at some stage, should have a galvanising effect. As with Twickenham a year ago, the switch to Wembley should suit Leinster's balanced style admirably.

Here again the aim will be to return with something, but on last week's impressive showing against Racing, the overall aspiration could and should extend beyond that.

Much like Munster in Limerick, it smacks of one that could be lost, but that is the beauty of this truly great competition.

Even Ulster -- despite their abysmal record on Gallic soil -- will run out in Biarritz tomorrow expectant of some sort of return. It's a big ask, but this so far unbeaten Ulster side, will travel with substantially more than mere hope of breaking their French duck.

Three huge games and not one predictable with any degree of confidence. If there's a better competition in any code, anywhere, I don't know it.

Irish Independent

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