THE danger that Munster’s famed ‘magic’ in the Heineken Cup might desert them in tomorrow’s crunch clash against Toulon is not something that Ronan O’Gara would wish to even contemplate.
So many times in the past, they have ‘dug out’ a result to keep their love affair with Europe alive. But the stark fact remains that if the province fail to beat Toulon tomorrow – or at the very least emerge with a losing bonus point – they will fail to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time in 13 years. The tournament would be all the poorer for their absence.
Theirs is an incredible level of consistency that has included two triumphs, two losing finals and a joyous romp across the continent followed by their legendary army of supporters.
Stand up and Fight, from Carmen Jones, is the team’s anthem. It epitomises perfectly their ethos. Travelling to Stade Felix Mayol will hold no fears. Foreign fields have been conquered before when Munster’s backs have been against the wall and losing was not an option. O’Gara, the linchpin of the side for more than a decade, as well as for Ireland, is convinced they can do so again.
“Waking up on Monday with only the Magners League (which they lead) to look forward to does not appeal to me and I don’t think it appeals to my teammates,” the fly-half, 33, said. “That will be the driving force. It is essentially a pre-quarter-final knockout game. Europe does bring out the best in us. “But we are standing on a trapdoor. Not qualifying would be a heavy blow.”
Munster have lost twice in the tightly contested pool three, away to London Irish in October, when they were perhaps guilty of complacency, and to the Ospreys last month, when their scrum was demolished and Paul O’Connell was sent off. They cannot afford another slip-up. “It is far from ideal, but it (qualification) can still be achieved,” O’Gara said.
“This is a great competition and we want to make sure we are going to be there when it gets even better, in the knockout stages.”
On the surface there are distinct similarities between the clubs who meet tomorrow. Both are immersed in their community, backed by raucous, passionate fans. Stade Mayol on a match day is not dissimilar to Thomond Park, a frenzied cauldron. The main difference is that whereas Toulon are a league of nations assembled by Philippe Saint-Andre, their director of rugby, and trying to make a name for themselves, Munster, in terms of the make-up of their squad and their identity, still have their feet planted firmly in the locality.
Nor does he believe that the essence of Munster has been diluted by the demands of professionalism. “No, I would be very strong on that,” he said. “You have to make sure there is still a lot of local heartbeat going into it. It is important that remains.”
Parallels can also be drawn between O’Gara and Jonny Wilkinson, his opposing fly-half tomorrow. Both have broken just about every points-scoring record going for club and country, and O’Gara has been voted the most influential player in Heineken Cup history. He has the small matter of 103 Ireland caps, and counting.
Like Wilkinson, he has had to come to terms with playing second fiddle at international level, he to Jonathan Sexton, Wilkinson to Toby Flood. Each has come to terms with an unaccustomed situation. “I have huge admiration for him (Wilkinson),” O’Gara said. “He has done it for ten years and he continues to do it. He is not a flash in the pan who does it once then lets his standards drop. He is monotonously good. It is only when he is retired that he will be fully appreciated. “I could not be happier. Whether I get picked or not for Ireland is out of my hands. I struggled with that for the first six months.
“It is up to the coach (Declan Kidney) now; it is all about Munster, that is my focus. Experience tells you to go with the flow, get your head down and work and the break will come.”