Wednesday 11 December 2019

Underdogs have belied their 'little old us' status

Last year's semi-final near-miss will be the template for Munster, writes Eddie Butler

Toulon's head coach Bernard Laporte celebrates after winning the European Cup rugby final rugby union match between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 18, 2013. Toulon won 16-15. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
Toulon's head coach Bernard Laporte celebrates after winning the European Cup rugby final rugby union match between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 18, 2013. Toulon won 16-15. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Eddie Butler

Bernard Laporte, the coach of Toulon, is seeing the bigger picture these days. It is the view he has of his team from a seat on high – far, that is, above the touchline from which he is banned for 16 weeks. He made a few choice observations on the performance of the French referee Pierre Cardona beginning with a "useless", progressing to a "completely incompetent", and rounding off with a "he robs us every time".

His team do not seem to be missing his close proximity on match day. They are the top of the Top 14 with one round to go before the play-offs, and the defending European champions have territorial, if not absolutely home, advantage today against Munster.

Laporte, weighing up such factors and throwing in the impression that every one of his squad is bristling with ambition and form, gives Toulon "a slight advantage . . . we may say 51-49 per cent in our favour". It is not the most immodest pre-match prediction ever made.

The French coach's view seemed to be confirmed by Munster's. Rob Penney made a comparison between his research into Toulouse, beaten in the last round at Thomond Park, and Toulon and concluded that today's opponents "have shown very limited pictures in terms of where they might be fragile".

Paul O'Connell did little to brighten the New Zealander's stark assessment. "Toulon can push you around the place with sheer power, but then they've incredible talent, incredible steppers, incredible footballers and they've got massive gas all over the pitch. Not just in the backline but in the pack as well. You know you're going to be challenged every single way possible."

The drift seems clear and risks turning into a fierce current with Munster going into the game without Peter O'Mahony to take on Steffon Armitage, the undisputed king of the art of turning apparent chubbiness into the most perfectly sculpted shape for rugby's breakdown.

One last thing, any sense that an assembly of galacticos can never match Munster for good old-fashioned team spirit is completely undone by Toulon's endeavours where it matters. From the supposedly refined Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau to the more obviously heavyweight Carl Hayman and Jose Suta, Toulon work hard. They are the team of the moment, and going for the French and European double that eluded them last year.

Six years have passed since Munster won the second of their titles. When Leinster matched them for sheer willpower and then outclassed them in the semi-final of 2009, something of their mystique seemed to evaporate. In 2011, they did not qualify from the pools and in 2012 Ulster had the cheek to beat them in the quarter-final at Thomond Park. And now this, Toulon at the Velodrome. Munster would have it no other way. They are playing the "little old us" card to perfection: the outsiders, the underdogs. But they have been to more semi-finals in this competition than anyone else – this will be their 11th, and their seventh in France. They have won on two of those visits, against Castres in 2002 and Toulouse in 2000, but perhaps the most relevant performance came last year in Montpellier.

Munster lost 16-10 to Clermont and started as if they were not convinced they could win. But something happened that day and a self-belief returned. "We left opportunities out there," says Simon Zebo. "It was one of those games where at the start of the week everyone was writing you off so much and you haven't got a chance and all this – and then come minute 75, you're like: 'Why aren't we in front? We should be able to win this game'."

In O'Mahony's absence, James Coughlan is doing a pretty good job in that stooped world of the breakdown steal. The Munster pack have upped their intensity too. In Europe this season, they have won the most turnovers and conceded fewest penalties.

Conor Murray is playing with a new authority and Casey Laulala returns to bring invention and craft to the midfield. Zebo is running with mischief again. They are all burning with that strange something that once set Munster apart. Laporte reckons 51 per cent against 49. It may be tighter than that.

Observer

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