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Scrum must stay strong or Wilkinson will boot Munster out


Toulon's English star Jonny Wilkinson remains full of courage but is not as steely as he once was. Photo: PA

Toulon's English star Jonny Wilkinson remains full of courage but is not as steely as he once was. Photo: PA

Toulon's English star Jonny Wilkinson remains full of courage but is not as steely as he once was. Photo: PA

The potential of a side that can boast proven world stars such as Jonny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman, George Smith, Joe van Niekerk, Paul Sackey, Rudi Wulf, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Henjak and others such as French internationals Sebastien Bruno and Pierre Mignoni.

All are quality players and Wilkinson is an obvious match winner with his tactical kicking and goalkicking. Toulon's game is forged around the England out-half; he controls the play and steers his side into the most propitious positions.

They are at their best when they're playing a fast, penetrative game, utilising the quick thinking of Mignoni at scrum-half and getting their powerful centres to smash at the defence over the gain line.

Then, the rapid recycling skills of players like Smith and Van Niekerk come into play.

They have plenty of pace in their game if they can secure a sufficiently strong forward platform and get quick ball from the breakdown.

If that happens, the first wave of their attacking runners behind the scrum can prove a considerable distraction, given their presence and physicality.

But, as with so many back-line movements these days, the ball is very often moved to the second wave of runners coming from deep. These are the men Munster must target.

Of late it has been Wilkinson. His two late missed drop-goal attempts, neither from difficult positions, cost them a draw against Racing Metro and he landed only seven from 12 kicks at goal against Biarritz.

Opponents like to target his weaker inside shoulder, too, with surging runs off the scrum base or the rucks and mauls.

In defence, he remains full of courage but he is no longer as steely as he once was.

Another weakness is that the sum of the parts does not always add up to the whole. Yes, Toulon have plenty of star names but even coach Philippe Saint-Andre admits they are still growing as a team.

This is where Munster come out on top against them.

Their concentration levels can dip alarmingly too at times. They can be very good but then make a crass error to disrupt the flow.

Overall, the defence is pretty structured and solid, despite conceding 309 points in 16 French Championship games.

Opponents can profit against them; Biarritz scored two tries, both created by moments of sloppy defending in which the defensive team ethos seemed to have switched off momentarily.

Saint-Andre admitted that was an area they had to work on.

Sides that get at Toulon and subject them to sustained pressure can profit. Their defensive concentration levels and sometimes their positioning can be suspect.

It is one of the better line-outs in French rugby, even though there are no obvious star names such as an O'Connell, a Matfield, a Williams or Thorn.

But the likes of former English Premiership players Dean Schofield and Kris Chesney give them a solidity, consistency and intelligence in this phase of play.

Van Niekerk is used sometimes at the tail and Olivier Missoup (a likely replacement) is a fine jumper at the back.

But the chief target at the back will be Argentinian No 8 Fernandez Lobbe. He is a productive source of possession. Bruno's throwing is generally good so Toulon's line-out motto appears to be 'KISS' (keep it simple, stupid).

They sometimes employ the 'two-pod' system, but even when thrown to the middle or front, the ball is swiftly transferred to the extreme back to allow breaks off the fringes.

Potentially the biggest danger area to Munster. Hayman, arguably the world's best tight-head prop, has been rested for the last two games to be ready for this one.

He will give Munster a hell of a problem in the tight.

The New Zealander's power is renowned and his reputation goes before him. He is a bear of a man at 6ft 5ins and 18st 12lbs, and whoever confronts him will find it a painful experience.

Hooker Bruno is an old style French No 2, enthusiastic in his scrummaging, good at doing the basics of the hooker's job.

Completing the front-row is Laurent Emmanuelli at loose-head, a top-class operator.

Georgian international Davit Kubriashvili is back-up to Hayman -- useful but not quite at the same level.

The Toulon scrum is most definitely enhanced by two solid workhorses at lock: Englishmen Schofield and Chesney, both of whom are genuine scrummagers.

And back-rowers Fernandez Lobbe, Smith and Van Niekerk should complete a powerful unit.

Watch out for the darting runs of Mignoni, if, as expected, he gets the nod to start at scrum-half ahead of Australian Henjak.

Off free-kicks, he likes to tap and run, hurtling into the opposition defence. And in players like Smith and Van Niekerk, he has players quick enough to get to him in support. Mignoni's eye for a gap is always wandering, searching.

Toulon are not especially known for their rolling mauls, unlike say Biarritz. But they ruck ferociously and with intent and they are quick to get bodies to the breakdown.

Watch out, too, for the charging runs of Fernandez Lobbe. He is not only their No 1 chaser of Wilkinson's high kicks, both in broken play and from restarts, but generally a powerful force at top speed. Munster will need to protect the receiver of high kicks (subtly, of course) so as to minimise Fernandez Lobbe's danger.

He also likes to take up unexpected positions in midfield to take the ball up, besides the more predictable duty of charging from the back of the scrum. His work-rate in all phases is prodigious and he is usually the player who fields the restart kicks by the opposition.

Behind the scrum, there is no lack of power and presence outside Wilkinson in midfield. Gabi Lovobalavu, the Fijian inside-centre, utilises every inch and ounce of his squat 5ft 10ins, 15st 1lb frame to take the ball up over the gain line.

He likes to take the ball on the charge and hit the defensive line at speed. He is a direct, dangerous runner and Munster's first-up tackling will need to be secure.

Outside him, Mafi Kefu has made a real impact with some strong runs and physical contributions.

Undeniably, the loss of Sonny Bill Williams has been felt but Munster cannot expect to run through these two very often.

Fotu Auelua, once a back-row player, has also been used in midfield by the club this season.

It's fair to say that England wing Paul Sackey has not yet lit up the Stade Mayol but another player in the back three has done.

Former Auckland Blues player Wulf arrived as a wing but has moved to full-back of late and made a dramatic impact.

Wulf's pace and desire to get the ball in his hands has given Toulon an extra attacking dimension. He joins the line wide out and has the gas to burn off all but the quickest defenders. Wulf is strong too (6ft and 14st 2lbs) but it is his speed that has caused problems.

Perhaps, however, he still has work to do on parts of his defensive game, such as positioning.

Nine wins and seven defeats in the French Top 14 this season tells you that Toulon are hardly unbeatable.

But they will draw considerable sustenance from their crowd, if the Toulonnais understand the importance of this Heineken Cup tie, which is by no means certain in the club's first season in the competition.

If Wilkinson's goalkicking is hot, Munster will need to be super-disciplined. Their chief issue looks like being how to avoid conceding penalties at scrum time. Some wily performances may be required from the Munster front-row.

Toulon tend to blow hot and cold. When they're hot, they're a potent, powerful unit, but there can be lengthy spells in matches when their game seems to drop. This is when Munster must take full advantage.

The hosts have conceded 24 tries in 16 French Top 14 games, which underlines the structure to their defence. But they have scored only 22 tries in the same number of games.

Inevitably, much of their threat is based around key man Wilkinson. Even so, Munster can cause plenty of problems themselves. If Munster's discipline and concentration levels are watertight, they are perfectly capable of claiming a crucial win.

But there is one rider to add: that can only happen if the Munster scrum holds up. If it is smashed and penalties conceded on a frequent basis, Wilkinson could boot Tony McGahan's men out of the competition.

Irish Independent