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'Do-or-die' simply a way of life for Stringer

IT is a remarkable statistic. In the 101 Heineken Cup games that Munster have played since 1998/'99, only one player has started at scrum-half besides Peter Stringer or Tomas O'Leary.

Stringer has 77 Heineken Cup starting appearances over that period, O'Leary 22, with the final two starts handed to Mike Prendergast in 2001/'02.

It emphasises the extent to which Stringer and O'Leary have battled for the No 9 jersey over the past number of seasons, and it is a battle that has been dominated by the Dolphin man since he usurped Stringer for the quarter-final starting slot on Munster's route to European glory in 2008. That contest has been replicated at international level also.

However, ahead of Sunday's seminal showdown with Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol, the situation is a little less clear. O'Leary has 10 appearances for Munster this season and such has been Stringer's form, off the bench, and from the starter's gun that there have been calls for his reinstatement as first-choice scrum-half for province and country.

For this weekend's clash, it appears to be a question of approach. Do you start with Stringer's gun-slinging delivery, to aid an expansive approach from the off, aimed at blitzing the powerful, conservative French side out of the game? Or, do you start O'Leary, on the basis of getting stuck into the home side for the first tranche of the match, frustrate them, and then release Stringer with 20 to go when gaps appear?

The answer to the riddle will be revealed tomorrow, but, whoever gets the nod (and the hunch is that it may be the greater physical power of O'Leary), Stringer retains a singular focus and says the hype about his passing is not something he allows to distract him.

"It's not something that I feel brings added pressure or that it is the key area that is going to do anything, it's not," said Stringer. "There are 23 guys who have the opportunity to go out and make a difference and if I get the opportunity at some stage to play my game and impose it on them, then well and good.

"It's something I don't feel any added pressure about; it's something that comes naturally to me if called upon."

The phrases, 'season-defining', 'must-win' and 'do-or-die' have been bandied about all week on the basis that if Munster fail to win in Toulon, they are looking at their first pool exit since the season before the scrum-half took his bow.

However, this 33-year-old is the ultimate been-there, done-that merchant and is not about to be phased by the pressure bearing down on the squad this week.

"We've played Heineken Cup group games already this year and our home matches have been must-win," said Stringer.

"We've always gone in with that approach: you look to win your home matches, you try and pick up something on the road. We've gone into every home match with the attitude we have to win the game, and they have been massive matches and pressure situations for us. This is no different. It's a huge game.

"We're looking to go over to France and win the match, first and foremost. That's our key, that's the only thing we're going to do. If we get our performance right, hopefully the result will come.

"I expect Toulon to carry ball, (play an) off-loads, high tempo game and I think when you look at their side and the number of players they can pick from and the quality of guys that can step in, and the ability to play rugby, that is one thing we'll have to be aware of.

"Especially down there, on a good firm pitch, in front of their home supporters, they will look to take it to us early on and play that type of game, so it's a matter of trying to get hold of the ball in the first 20 minutes, trying to get stuck into them and make a bit of a game of it."

Toulon were visibly unnerved by the ferocious atmosphere in Thomond Park when they were blown asunder on a

45-18 scoreline last October and Stringer fully expects the 'warm welcome' to be repaid in kind.

"It's a real rugby town, and they are very passionate about their rugby, very much like where we come from here. It's quite similar, in terms of supporters really getting behind their team. And, from what I've heard, the ground there has an incredible atmosphere and that will set it up nicely on the day."

Whether it is a starting or cameo role on Sunday, Stringer's philosophy is simple: "I'm going out to play my own game, the one I've always played."

It's worked pretty well for him so far.

Irish Independent