Thursday 22 February 2018

George Hook: Munster will be smart and brave – but they are doomed

Ian Keatley, Munster
Ian Keatley, Munster

Toulon take to the pitch in Marseille tomorrow as overwhelming favourites to make their second consecutive Heineken Cup final.

Bernard Laporte's side, with 28 seasoned and skilled internationals, have more strength, more firepower, more of just about everything than their Irish opposition.

Put simply, there is no chink in their armour, no loose link in their chain.

Munster's unenviable task is to face down a giant in a cauldron of hostility and hope that a perfectly timed stone will send the defending champions toppling. Like David and Goliath, victory for the underdog is a long shot.

The tactical nuances of kick versus pass and run versus hold won't have much bearing over the 80 minutes. Leinster gave a masterclass in how not to play against Toulon, but a study in failure is of very little use to a team hoping to go one better.

Munster's only chance of victory is in unity of force. Paul O'Connell knows this, and his job this week has been to manage his team's fervour and build towards reaching an adrenaline climax at precisely the right moment. Munster, as a bold and undivided unit, can cause Toulon problems.

There is no room for error. Toulon have a vulturous ability to exploit weakness and should Munster get isolated in defence or caught napping without possession, Toulon will make them pay.

Drew Mitchell and Springbok flyer Bryan Habana are two of the quickest wings on the planet. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo will never have a better opportunity to prove their worth.

The first few tackles will be crucial and rugby fans on O'Connell Street in Limerick should expect to hear the crunch of bone on muscle all the way from the south of France.

As Bernard Jackman and Grenoble found out earlier in the season, Toulon can be guilty of underestimating teams. Munster might just have the element of surprise.

O'Connell will have his players baying for blood, exploding into the opposition from the first few seconds and dragging Toulon out of their comfort zone.

Munster have never lacked brain power on the big stage and if there is a specific game plan to confuse Toulon, I wonder how the defending champions will cope.

The Armitage brothers and Danie Rossouw are fine rugby players, but they cannot be considered the sharpest knives in the drawer. Munster's game smarts might give them an edge.

JJ Hanrahan's miraculous recovery to make the bench is difficult to process. It seems as though Rob Penney is gambling on Hanrahan to come through, with no alternative cover at fly-half.

EXPERT

Munster's third choice at 10, Johnny Holland, has not started a single game all season. It is ludicrous to expect Conor Murray to slot into a position he hasn't played in since underage level and if anything should happen to Ian Keatley tomorrow, Munster had better pray that Hanrahan is up to the job.

Keatley's opposite number has been down this road many times before, but Jonny Wilkinson is nearing the end of a long career.

Toulon tend to score more tries when Wilkinson is not on the pitch. Whenever Matt Giteau or the unpredictable Freddie Michalak have started at fly-half this season, Toulon average a try every 31 minutes.

Contrast that with a try every 43 minutes when Wilkinson is at the helm.

In cup rugby, where every point is crucial, Wilkinson has unquestionably been picked for his remarkable accuracy with the boot. If Munster give away penalties under the infuriatingly inconsistent Wayne Barnes, Toulon will rack up the points.

The breakdown is bound to be ferociously competitive. Penney has picked Sean Dougall ahead of Tommy O'Donnell specifically to counter the poaching skills of Juan Smith and Steffon Armitage, but the young Munster openside will need to produce the game of his life to make his presence felt.

If Dougall manages to hold his own with the physical freaks in the Toulon back-row, he should travel with the Ireland squad to Argentina in the summer.

Ronan O'Gara admitted in an interview this week that Munster gave Clermont a soft start in the opening 20 minutes of last year's semi-final.

The first quarter tomorrow will set the tone for the game. If Munster find a way of keeping Toulon off the scoreboard early on, they will grow in self-belief and cast doubt in the minds of their opponents.

Penney put it best when he admitted that Munster's best rugby may not be enough to beat Toulon. Leinster were blown away in the quarter-final because they failed to match the power and intensity of Toulon up front.

If Munster can somehow take Toulon's power-base away and make the French side uncomfortable, anything is possible. For me, though, Toulon are simply too good.

Munster will be brave and committed with plenty of shots fired over the course of 80 minutes. On this occasion, however, the giants of French rugby will be left standing at the final whistle.

Irish Independent

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