Munster's backs to the wall
MUNSTER head into their season-defining clash with Toulon as underdogs, but Paul Warwick believes the squad have the talent and belief to upset the odds at the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday.
There was good news on the injury front yesterday when it was announced that Tony Buckley, John Hayes, David Wallace, Sam Tuitupou and Doug howlett are expected to train tomorrow, having recovered from their v arious injury and illness issues. It is a timely boost for coach Tony McGahan as defeats away to London Irish and the Ospreys have put Munster under pressure to maintain their record of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup every season since 1997 and Warwick knows a third loss this weekend would spell disaster.
However, the Australian takes heart from last season's trip to then French champions Perpignan, when Munster were widely written off but produced a magnificent performance to stun the home side 37-14.
Warwick was one of the star performers in a compelling team display that day and the 30-year-old is invoking the spirit of Stade Aime Giral as Munster build up to this mammoth challenge.
"In terms of an away game in France we'll have the same approach as we did for Perpignan last year," he said. "We were written off no end, but there is huge belief in the team to get results. That was a game where everything kind of went right for us, but we're used to being underdogs -- we don't expect anyone to help us out and give us a free ride.
"There's huge belief, and going to Toulon we'll carry that belief and we'll get the job done.
"We're going there for a result, any way we can get it, whether it's ugly or a four-try bonus we'll be delighted. There's a lot of work to do individually, mentally, just to get up for the game. You know it's a hostile environment; we're aware of all that, as Perpignan was, and that belief will just come through."
Warwick played full-back last weekend when Munster scraped past Glasgow 22-20 to copper-fasten their lead at the head of the Magners League.
Referee James Jones came under scrutiny following an inconsistent display where the Welshman penalised Munster heavily in the first half, leaving the home side 10-3 down at the break, before blowing Glasgow off the park in the second. Next weekend, highly regarded Englishman Dave Pearson is in charge, another link to the Perpignan victory last season, and Warwick says Munster's discipline will be crucial if they are to achieve success on Sunday.
"It just shows that we have to work with the ref a bit more; we can't leave games go to half-time being 10 points down, especially over there. We'll have to see if we can adjust on the field rather than wait until half-time."
While Munster will need to match a fearsome Toulon pack if they are to subdue the home team next weekend, Warwick is part of a fascinating backline selection conundrum facing McGahan.
With All Blacks pair Tuitupou and Howlett back in the mix, McGahan has a number of ways to go with his backline. Ronan O'Gara will partner either Tomas O'Leary or Peter Stringer at half-back but it is the outside backs where the real selection fascination lies.
Munster's backline has been more efficient than effervescent this season, but they have the players and the ability to adopt a more expansive approach with the bludgeon on hand if required.
Most of the selection speculation this week will centre on whether Paul O'Connell starts on the second-row or comes off the bench, but the composition of the outside backs could be equally significant and the following are some of the options available to McGahan.
Option A -- As you were
15 Warwick, 14 Howlett, 13 Earls, 12 Tuitupou/Mafi, 11 Murphy
The formula which took the field against the Ospreys (when Mafi came off the bench for his cousin Tuitupou) and was supposed to against Glasgow when Mafi started at No 12. Having one of the Tongan cousins at inside-centre indicates a direct approach and would mean Johne Murphy on the wing when his rich vein of form promotes a switch inside to get him involved as often as possible.
Option B -- Muscle tussle
15 Murphy, 14 Howlett, 13 Earls, 12 Tuitupou/Mafi, 11 Hurley
A muscular option which sees Denis Hurley brought onto the left wing and Warwick omitted with the more defensively secure Murphy switching back.
Hurley's powerful running and size give Munster a Shane Horgan-esque physicality out wide, which looks well suited for this type of cup rugby, with Murphy hitting the line from the back.
Option C -- Go for broke
15 Warwick, 14 Howlett, 13 Earls, 12 Murphy, 11 Hurley
The combination that proved so effective against Toulon in Round 2 at Thomond Park when Munster blitzed the French side 45-18, crossing for three tries in each half. In terms of backline play, this was Munster's most inventive showing of the season and the key was Murphy's location at No 12.
The Murphy-Earls combination was one that opted for space and off-loads rather a direct line into contact and the Kildare man's ability to switch back and forth with Warwick kept the visitors guessing and the home side humming.
Of course, that was a home clash where Toulon lost their mental resolve in the face of Munster's intensity -- the same cannot be expected in France. Thus, this would constitute an extremely brave selection but would also signal a 'we've come to play' intent against an inherently conservative opposition.
This week's selection could see Warwick assigned a key attacking role or reduced to a cameo appearance off the bench. Whatever way the dice fall, Warwick says there is a collective will in the squad to do what needs to be done.
"It's dubbed the 'pool of death' for a reason and we have to win in Toulon," said Warwick. "We're where we need to be, we're still in both competitions. The ball is in our court."