Saturday 14 December 2019

Reds need mythical Munster X-factor

Penney's men must defy logic in province's greatest tradition to upset globetrotters

Mathieu Bastareaud is one of Toulon's two exceptional talents
Mathieu Bastareaud is one of Toulon's two exceptional talents
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Heart and head, head and heart. You'll have heard a lot about those particular parts of the anatomy in recent days and no doubt quite a bit more between now and kick-off time at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille tomorrow afternoon.

My heart clearly wants Munster but the head says Toulon will triumph.

Logic doesn't enter into it because, in Munster, the reigning champions are facing the most illogical team in the competition. No, my fear is based on the fundamentals of the game.

No matter how well they do out of touch or how technically efficient and ground-gaining the maul is, the bottom-line concern is that Rob Penney's men are facing a team who do what Munster do – but do it even better again.

I so wish it was a repeat of last year's semi-final against Clermont because Clermont's attacking style – much-akin to Leinster – is breakable ... so much easier on the eye but distinctly beatable.


What Bernard Laporte has done – courtesy of Mourad Boudjellal's unlimited resources – is assemble a team of global superstars (28 internationals representing eight countries and with another lorry-load, including Leigh Halfpenny, Ian Evans and James O'Connor, already signed and sealed for next season).

If there is any rugby-playing entity on this planet with a prototype way of playing and with the resources to do it, it is RC Toulon.

Laporte has identified a power-driven way of playing the game. It is a winning formula whereby power at the breakdown, allied to consistently changing the point of attack through minimal ball-handling risk, is paying massive dividend.

It's as if what came naturally to Munster, particularly in the earlier days of this great competition, has been taken to the lab and reinvented for this new-age power-player courtesy of Toulon.

That is intended as no slight whatsoever on the globetrotters set to confront the two-time winners tomorrow.

It a statement of fact. Right now when it comes to playing 'Plan A' turbo-strength rugby, former France coach Laporte has at least two identical pegs for every hole.

I will, however, make an exception in the case of two key individuals: Mathieu Bastareaud and Steffon Armitage.

Munster have forced more turnovers at the breakdown per game (12) than any other team yet Armitage is top of the 'turnovers won' chart in the Heineken Cup this season with 17.

Even when the peerless Jonny Wilkinson was called ashore against Leinster in the quarter-final, an initial wobble off the kicking tee apart, Matt Giteau moved in from inside-centre with consummate ease, and the machine continued operating with minimal disruption.

It's not pretty but it's winning rugby – the modern way. When Munster last did it (to Toulouse) in the '08 final, we marvelled at its beauty.

If they repeat that feat tomorrow I will be at the front of the line lauding those suffocation tactics.

Can they do it? Yes. Will they? I have my doubts insofar as they are up against a freak force, whose intensity is relentless. As Paul O'Connell suggested, a hammering for Munster is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

It is imperative the red machine hits the ground running and employs the best suffocation tactics and physicality in the tackle and at the breakdown – but a level better than ever before.

The most complete Irish display this season, combining attack and defence, was provided by Leinster against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens but the best-ever win by an Irish side in this competition (yes, even better than Leinster's second-half tour de force against the Saints in the Cardiff final of 2011) came in January 2000 in Bordeaux.

That day Munster positively blitzed Toulouse with that infectious brand of in-your-face aggression.

For Munster tomorrow it is not about any one thing. It is not about O'Connell reproducing his Stoop masterclass of 2013 or CJ Stander replacing Peter O'Mahony seamlessly in the game against Toulouse.

It is not alone about Ian Keatley taking every point-scoring opportunity that comes his way or indeed James Downey doing to the French midfield what for sure Bastareaud will do to Munster.

Tomorrow, is all about that mythical X-factor. It is about the collective.

It is about each and every individual playing out of his skin and doing things beyond all individual rational planning.

Even then whether it's quite enough, I'm not so sure. Toulon below their best can be beaten but Munster below theirs will be, and well at that. The start is everything. Munster must plant seeds of doubt by way of sheer physicality.

Think O'Connell hitting Sabastien Chabal of Sale from the kick-off in Thomond Park a few years back and you've got the drift.

O'Connell will do his bit, that's for sure. But more importantly it is about the Dave Kilcoynes, the Tommy O'Donnells, the Keatleys and yes, even the Conor Murrays coming of age as Munster leaders. This is about heart every bit as much as head.

It's about wanting something so badly that you will go to places within you didn't know existed. That is bravery, but it is also the bottom-line demand tomorrow.

The time for talking is over. As Willie Duggan used say so succinctly in his best Ireland and Lions playing days "time to s**t or get off the pot".

No single strategy is going to unlock the door to the final but, as in Bordeaux all those years ago, 80 minutes of unrelenting Munster pressure, whether with or without the ball, and the proudest team in the tournament, the team to have made this great competition what it is, are in with a shout.

Let us start on that basis and see where it leads from there.


Two-legged semi-finals the way forward in Champions Cup

With the new European Rugby Champions Cup set to commence, it has been suggested by some in high places that the time is right for change in relation to the semi-final structure.

In other words, instead of having a neutral semi-final,the draw should allow for a home fixture (and not just country) in the truest sense of the term. The alternative would be a two-legged semi-final (for which there could be much merit), leaving the option to the home team to change to a bigger and better stadium if they so wish.

The quarter-final would still be a once-off match, with the incentive of a top-four seeding every bit as vital to the success of the tournament as it has been thus far.

Certainly there is much room for debate, and given we are entering into a new era, the time for semi-final reconstruction might just be right.

For Munster, tomorrow's last-four clash represents an amazing 11th semi-final (an eighth for Paul O'Connell and the most by any team in the tournament) but in nine of those they have been drawn away – and in 2009, although they were the designated home team, they played Leinster in Dublin.

Only once, in 2004, in arguably the most exciting semi-final ever, were they the proper home team and that was when losing to Wasps (37-32) at Lansdowne.

Their last semi-final win was away to Saracens (18-16) at the Ricoh Arena in 2008. Since then, three semi-finals have ended in three defeats.

Let's just say this final Heineken Cup tournament owes them one.

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