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Battle-hardened troops go back into the combat zone

'You reach a point in every campaign where, if you don't win, you're not going to go forward. It could be the third, fourth, fifth or sixth round when it happens. With us, it's mostly round six.'

That was Tony McGahan addressing the Munster players in a team meeting last week. He was trying to put some perspective on their current position. Statistically they are the most consistent team in European history.

McGahan's message was this: no more than he could predict accurately when the flood would subside in his native Queensland could he tell them when their own day would come. The day when, in the second week of April, they would be watching a Heineken Cup quarter-final instead of playing in one. So in the meantime get on with the game.

Present in the room were a handful who had been on board when Munster first pulled back the curtain on the knock-out stages of the competition: Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes, Mick O'Driscoll and David Wallace. After three seasons of sizing it up and seeing if they were up for it, or capable of it, Munster qualified from their pool. It was 1999, and they haven't since known the isolation of being left behind when the second half starts.

No other side in Europe has this sort of experience at its core. A year after that first journey, Alan Quinlan and Marcus Horan appeared in the squad. Injury means neither of them is featuring at the minute but they haven't gone away. The next season it was the turn of second rows Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell to emerge. That was 2001/'02. All of them are still there.

If you're wondering how it is that Munster have managed to put together 12 unbroken years of qualifying from their Heineken Cup pool, you'd be foolish to overlook the ease of entry to the pool in the first place. Strolling casually, year after year, from the world of Celtic rugby afforded Ireland's top three provinces incredible opportunity to load up on European experience. The Brits and the French had to get through a minefield first in their own backyard. For Munster, learning to be leaders in that competition has been predicated on having the rump of the squad with an extraordinary knowledge base. They have seen it from every angle, and in all weathers.

And they're about to wilt in Toulon?

* * * * *

TOULON are all about their president, the man who revived them after they had one foot in the grave once the game went professional. Having won the French Championship twice, and filled the runner-up spot once, in the 10 years immediately before the game went open, Toulon were a handy outfit with a long tradition. But they hadn't the cash to play the same game as the big boys when the field opened up. Not until Mourad Boujellal came along.

No story better illustrates the open game than his rescue of Toulon. In the old days, when the sport was governed exclusively by committee, there would have been no room for this local boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Unlike Max Guazzini in Paris, Boujellal didn't alight on a club where he had no connection and turn it into a glamorous operation. He is of Toulon, a working-class city better known for its massive naval base than its tourist industry. It has none of the cachet of Cannes and Nice to its east, or Marseilles to the west. For Les Toulonnais, however, rugby has always been part of them.

Boujellal, the son of an Algerian, took over as president in 2006 just as the club had been relegated to Pro D 2. When a moneybags (he has made a fortune from publishing comics) like that comes in, you expect big signings and a quick return to the top flight. The signings were top of the range: Tana Umaga followed by Dan Luger, Victor Matfield, George Gregan, Anton Oliver and Andrew Mehrtens. Sonny Bill Williams was the most successful of the next crop of backs, Carl Hayman the biggest name up front. Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom top the list of the next batch in Mourad's sights.

Initially, the results were a mile off the marketing drive. They were stuck in Pro D2 for two seasons, the second of which was a charge back into the top flight. Their first season back in the Top 14 was a struggle and then last season they kicked on a bit before looking this term like they are absolutely comfortable with the traditional heavy hitters Paris, Toulouse, Clermont, Perpignan and Biarritz.

Boujellal is not your typical club president. The press conference after their surprise defeat -- a shock to them more than anyone -- by Cardiff in last season's Challenge Cup final was something you would never get in these islands. It started with Boujellal alone at the top table fielding questions. After a while he was joined on one side by coach Philippe Saint-Andre, and on the other by captain Joe van Niekerk. Yet the questions kept coming to the president. He was not slow to voice his disappointment with how the players had got it wrong. He never is.

"He's a passionate guy," says Dan Luger, who was in that first tranche of recruits. "You'll hear all sorts of stories about him putting pressure on the team and maybe he doesn't understand some things because he never worked inside a rugby club before but he understands business and he understands how to motivate people and get things done. Say what you like about him -- he's done amazing things for Toulon. And it's not just his money -- it's his drive. He's very passionate about the game and he's very passionate about Toulon the town. He's involved in everything about the club, building the brand and making it more modern and appealing to different crowds. A bit like what Max did in Paris: not just chucking money at it for more old boring rugby stuff, but making it exciting and energetic and getting the kids involved."

At the start, though, he lost the run of himself. Toulon had become a rest-home for big names from the Southern Hemisphere, some of whose best days were behind them.

"I wouldn't say he should have been more modest in his recruitment -- I think that bit was right," says Luger. "But he could have been more modest in what he said. Before we'd even started the season (in Pro D2) he was saying it's not the Top 14 anymore -- it's the Top 15 -- and we hadn't even played our first game! It put so much pressure on us. Cheers Morad. Every team we played against wanted to kill us. So that didn't help. You've got to keep your head down a bit in rugby and stay humble. Whoever you are, someday someone is going to run over you or around you and make you look silly. Now that they're on the big stage they can get away with it. He can say what he wants."

And he does. His line about Limerick being owned by the IMF showed the man has a bit of wit as well as plenty of front. We're not so sure about his plea to the Toulon fans however to keep schtum when Ronan O'Gara is addressing a goal kick. You'd hope he was hopping a ball and that the fans will let it bounce.

The prospect of any French crowd taking themselves as seriously as the sanctimonious Munster Mob, who shush those around them as if they were in church, is too much to contemplate. Heineken Cup rugby is tribal. The away kicker should be given dog's abuse.

"It means everything to the people there," says Luger. "In all honesty, that's what the town's about. It's what their lives revolve around. It's a proper French rugby town mentality in terms of what it means to the people. Massive. You hear about French towns where when you're winning they give you free wine and free cheese and when you're losing they don't talk to you. Toulon isn't that bad but they do really make you feel part of it."

* * * * *

WE don't know how much store to put on the atmosphere in Stade Felix Mayol but when the locals give vent to Le Pilou-Pilou, their call to arms, it grabs your attention. Today will be special, one of those classic culture clashes that make this competition unique. That pre-match rant will be new to the Munster players but certainly they will recognise the smell of the combat zone. Learning to survive this is what has defined their dozen years at the top end.

We don't know either how long it will take for referee Dave Pearson to pack down the first scrum, but you know it will be a flashpoint in the fight. Toulon want to destroy them at this phase because it will feed the fans and hurt Munster and create penalties for Jonny Wilkinson.

Obviously the absence of Carl Hayman weakens their hand but he did nothing in this regard in Thomond Park in October. Enter Davit Kubriashvili, another in the lengthening line of Georgian props with the right stuff.

Munster were already backed into a corner in that first leg having lost the opener in London Irish and the intensity and concentration they brought to the set scrum that day was uncommon in the season they have had so far. When you combine their issues here with the decline of their lineout, you see where the confidence has gone. Having had to soldier on without Jerry Flannery and Paul O'Connell has diminished them out of touch.

Dilute any team at the set-piece and it wrecks their heads in all other parts of their game. It hasn't been an unending tale of woe -- otherwise they could not be leading the Magners League -- but certainly it has been well removed from what they want.

All the talk has been of Paul O'Connell's return, which you would guess is scheduled to last 50 minutes. Then the team was announced on Friday and two of those from that very first group of Munster qualifiers, Peter Stringer and John Hayes, had joined him in the starting team. The combination of Hayes and O'Connell will be big for Munster's lineout. The omission of Buckley is a big call, as big as Stringer ahead of Tomás O'Leary.

We are assured that scrummaging is as much about concentration as it is about technique, and the meaner you are, the easier it is to concentrate on subduing your opposite number. Buckley is a contradiction: a docile and affable bloke, in the loose he looks like an angry bear but sometimes in the scrum he comes across like that bear's cousin who lives a relaxed life above in the Phoenix Park. It would have been intriguing to see how he fared from the first whistle instead of off the bench.

For all in red there is a huge demand today on mental discipline, which is something of an issue with the squad overall. You have to go back to the Australia game in November for the last time Munster came through a game without picking up a card. Some of them have been irrelevant in the context of the match, and some of them have been refereeing errors, but nine cards in the last eight games is a problem that needs concentration to fix.

This should be easier to manage in what is, relative to Toulon, a tight group. Tony McGahan has used only 20 players in his starting teams over the four Heineken pool games. Philippe Saint-Andre has called on a staggering 31 players over the same period. The French coach has managed to shuffle his cards successfully from week to week through the Top 14 and Europe. It can't be easy keeping that number of players happy and productive. Maybe it's because they use so many bodies that their shape is not always that attractive to look at, but you can't argue with their current standing.

And when they're not chasing drop goals as if they were seven-pointers they can play some very powerful and dynamic rugby. Much of it is done on the counter where they start by keeping good numbers in the backfield. This will put huge pressure on Munster's kicking game.

So when O'Gara or Paul Warwick puts the ball out of play for example it has to be Row Z. Or at least they need a chaser on the scene in a flash to discourage, or contest, a quick throw. If you see black and red shirts being given a free run back up the field to join their support players, then Munster will be in trouble.

In fact, they will be in trouble, regardless. This will not be like Perpignan a year ago when Munster stunned the home team with the accuracy and power of their play up front -- and the locals gave up. No, this time Munster will be under the cosh and will have to fend off the blows and come back with some of their own. As McGahan said, this is the point where if they don't win they aren't just going home, they're going out. And they aren't quite ready for that yet.

Toulon v Munster,

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