This afternoon in Toulon, a remarkable and prestigious record in the Heineken Cup could come to an abrupt end.
Munster's Heineken Cup love affair with French opposition stretches back to the inaugural tournament in 1995. That season, Munster were drawn against Castres in Pool 2 and suffered a 19-12 defeat at a packed Stade Antoine Beguere. Swansea went on to top the group on points difference and Munster had to settle for second place and an early bath.
Given their formidable record in European rugby's elite competition, it would be easy to forget that Munster's first three attempts to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup ended in failure -- and that much of that failure came at the hands of French opposition. A hammering at the hands of Perpignan (41-24) in 1998 at the Stade Aime Giral was a defining moment for the team and it was to prove the end of Munster's pool stage exits in the competition for the next ten years.
Last week, Donncha O'Callaghan was trotted out in media interviews like some latter day Brian Lenihan Senior to dispel any notions of a crisis. Sadly, there is a crisis, because this is a team selected to face a crisis of confidence and ability. The mantra has been that one does not bet against Munster as they have been here before. This time around they face their greatest challenge with their weakest team for a decade.
O'Callaghan's comments, in which he labelled Toulon a team of "mercenaries", prompted RCT president Mourad Boudjellal to retort that "Munster were financed by the IMF" and it seems both sides are ready to wage war on the pitch.
Tony McGahan has picked a team that harks back to the golden age in the hope that somehow ageing warriors like John Hayes and David Wallace can halt the passage of time and dredge a performance from memory. Peter Stringer may be there on merit but somehow one gets the feeling that the dressing room 30 minutes beforehand will be talking about the past rather than the future.
Only in a backs-to-the-wall situation would a half-fit Paul O'Connell be asked to start. The second row is not fit. Fitness means the ability to complete 80 minutes of rugby and, by the coach's own admission, O'Connell is unlikely to perform for more than half that time. The big heart of the Young Munster man may be willing but the flesh is certainly weak.
In every key area, Toulon look stronger. The Munster midfield has stuttered all season where Keith Earls has looked what he is: a wing playing out of position. The young man's butchering of a certain try against Ulster demonstrated that he remains a very poor judge of when and where to pass. His partner, Sam Tuitupou, is a run-of-the-mill player who relies on strength rather than technique
and whose ill-discipline will give Jonny Wilkinson opportunities to kick points. They are faced by Felipe Contepomi in his best position and freed from the pressures of goal-kicking.
The back row looks a complete mismatch. Toulon have an all-star back row of Springboks' number eight Joe van Niekerk, Wallaby legend George Smith and Puma's stalwart Juan Fernandez Lobbe. They are faced by a declining force in David Wallace, a sub-par Denis Leamy and James Coughlan, who is unlikely to strike fear into the heart of his opponents.
However, the match will probably be decided by the scrum. That set-piece is now an embarrassment for Munster and Ireland and McGahan has called for another heroic performance from John Hayes who is nearer 40 than 30. It is a savage assessment of Tony Buckley.
The scrum problem is an indictment of Irish rugby planning. The failures have been evident for years and successive coaches at international and provincial level have been in denial. The provinces do have the option of going abroad and the latest signings, Peter Borlase and Craig Ryland, makes one wonder whether they were signed from a shopping catalogue. Both are incapable of holding up a scrum. Any self-respecting painter would hesitate to climb a ladder supported by the two foreigners or the local tightheads Hayes and Buckley.
At Ireland, Declan Kidney could well be charged with dereliction of duty. Like Eddie O'Sullivan before him, he has ignored the problem at the scrum. His current assessment of Mike Ross as being in fourth place behind the two Munster incumbents and Tom Court of Ulster is truly frightening and can only be based on opinions other than playing ability.
If, however, Ross is as bad as Kidney seems to think, then Ireland will go to the World Cup incapable of survival in the scrum. If that competition were at under-age level then Brian O'Driscoll's men might not be allowed compete on health and safety grounds.
They may be reduced to cheating, like Australia in the past, who did their level best to fabricate a position of uncontested scrums. Ireland's current position is worse than Australia's ever was and suggests that if Kidney were in charge of the landings on D-Day, his troops would have gone ashore without ammunition.
Toulon reached the final of the Top 14 last season boasting an unbeaten home record in all league matches. Given the strength of their domestic opposition -- Toulouse, Stade Francais, Biarritz, Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro -- this record stands out as nothing short of remarkable.
They currently sit just three points short of a play-off spot in the league campaign and although they have a squad littered with international experience, Phillipe Saint-Andre's tactics have tended to be formulaic and over-reliant on Jonny Wilkinson to kick points. Last weekend Toulon surrendered a 3-12 half-time lead away to Racing Metro, where Wilkinson slotted three drop goals and a penalty.
One glimmer of hope exists as the French appear, for no apparent reason, to have omitted Carl Hayman, their best scrummager. If that move is motivated by French over-confidence, then maybe, just maybe they could fold should the game go against them in the early stages.
Sooner or later this wonderful Munster odyssey was going to come to an end. I have predicted this team's demise too often to be certain this time around but the odds seem stacked against them even more than ever.
Sunday Indo Sport