Saturday 24 February 2018

Neil Francis: Munster living in realm of possible

Reds due a big show, with strong start at Toulon key

Paul O'Connell will have to be at his talismanic best on Sunday
Paul O'Connell will have to be at his talismanic best on Sunday
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Delving through the sports headlines a few weeks ago, there seemed to be a recurring theme on the rugby pages – “sense of unfairness” followed by “grievance” and underscored by “burning with resentment”. Who were these dreadfully put-upon people? Victims, surely, of a heinous conspiracy.

It is the rather obvious follow-on from Rob Penney's contention that his team Munster would be playing against Ireland (Leinster) in the Aviva. Nobody had taken too much notice that Ireland's one-time champion province had provided only three starters in Ireland's championship year. At one stage in the Italian game, Racing Metro had the same representation on the field as Munster – one player. A travesty!

Leinster won that match in the Aviva – a game of subdued ordinariness lit up by one moment of genius by Brian O'Driscoll.

Joe Schmidt's selection policy of picking 17 Leinster players was QED and, when it came down to redressing any selection slight or inequity, Munster just didn't have the wherewithal to put forward a compelling case to the contrary.

You got a sense that the PRO12 derby that evening was a few degrees shy of a death or glory encounter.

At that stage, I, for one, was certain that both teams would be seeing each other twice before the season was over.

Leinster have the top spot in the PRO12 and home advantage |throughout the play-offs is theirs unless misadventure or carelessness befalls them in the run-in.

I have this gnawing feeling that Munster have already forsaken the PRO12 and they don't care about the play-offs or for that matter the chance of another encounter with Leinster.

Those grievances and selection injustices are putting all their chips on red 15 and giving the wheel a spin on all or nothing play. Redress for lack of respect and the lack of Munster players in the national side will come, as it always does, in the most difficult theatre of all – on foreign soil against unbeatable and unbackable French or English champions. Great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.

Arthur C Clarke said: “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Beating Toulon is not impossible – Leinster would have done it if they had ‘turned up’.

Let me say first that I think the winner of the second semi-final this Sunday will go on to win the Heineken Cup. Let me also say that, if Toulon were travelling to Dublin to play Munster in the Aviva, you, me and the bookies too would be downgrading that match from the impossible down through the improbable and it would nestle squarely in the realms of the possible.

Toulon would be slight favourites. A situation that would suit Munster. Back to reality, though, having the match in Marseilles – well, that is a comfort. Leinster beat Clermont in 2012 in Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux in a stadium that practically nobody can remember.

The reason nobody does is because the relief of having drawn Clermont out of Stade Marcel Michelin gave rise to an overwhelming feeling that, once Les Jaunards were out of their lair, they were vulnerable – anywhere but their home venue.

Toulon are, if not invincible in Stade Felix Mayol, extremely difficult to overcome there, and with good reason. It is a bear pit and you play against powerful and aggressive opponents who are cheered on by a feral and hostile crowd – feral and hostile to anyone who set foot on their patch not wearing red and black.

The Velodrome – you can coat it in red and black and you can sing the Pilou Pilou, but it ain't the Stade Felix Mayol and so Munster are not attempting the impossible. They also know they have a chance.

They will have an appetite for the contest. They will take responsibility

for the occasion. They are not fatigued and, like any other team that is a synapse away from their goal, they recognise the need for improvement.

What Munster have produced up to the Toulouse game in the recent past was pretty dowdy. They have blown a healthy lead in the PRO12 and they got royally turned over by Glasgow the week before last. So we know there is a performance coming.

Nobody is stupid enough to think that it is an improvement on their PRO12 form. The improvement will come on their showing in the Toulouse game.

Munster will bring the usual hell, fire and brimstone and their pain game, but, more than anything, they will have to be clever. Wayne Barnes will be in charge this Sunday. Toulon are very lucky that the referee that Mourad Boudjellal referred to as the one who refereed Leinster in the quarter-final, semi-final and final of Heineken Cups and won every time is not refereeing on Sunday.

Barnes was pretty loose in the Leinster v Toulon and let Toulon's line creep offside all day. He also let Toulon seal off the ball at the breakdown with impunity. In fairness,

there is not a whole heap you can do to stop this if the referee doesn't do anything. It means that Munster will have to play the off-load and play it to a degree that they have never done so to before. They must also realise that, if they play a lateral passing game against Toulon, who have wrecking ball tacklers, they will make pathetic targets of themselves.

Munster have to kick as well and do it intelligently. They will have seen that Toulon won most of the battles in the air against Leinster, who would have thought they had a significant advantage there. Keatley will have to be sharper where he puts the ball. Far sharper than the out-of-sorts Jimmy Gopperth.

Toulon also play four men in the back field – so comfortable and so secure are they with the surety and power of their defensive line that they have the luxury of being able to deploy extra men behind.

Just like Leinster – I think Munster will be able to be comfortable at tight and, once they can do that, they will have a toe-hold or a cornerstone with which to get at Toulon. Munster, if they are surer than Leinster with their first-up tackles that is the key to survival. I have never seen Leinster as loose in that area. If you want to stop a team bullying you, you stop them dead at the gain line in the tackle. Easier said than done against Bastareaud, Rossouw and co.

Toulon will have watched Munster's performance against Toulouse and that performance would have raised eyebrows. Toulouse, no matter what you say, are Toulouse. Toulon will not take Munster lightly after that result.

Laporte will also have thrown an eye over Munster's march at the knockout stages last year. A large nota bene on the Harlequins game and also the very near miss over Clermont. Toulon will have noted that if you don't kill off Munster when you have the chance – they tend to stick around.

The first half is important. Leinster, going into the break at a miraculous 6-6, couldn't sustain it.

If Munster can keep their heads and stay in the game this match will stay within the realms of the very possible.


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