Sunday 25 February 2018

Varley: We all need to play best game of our lives

Last trip to face Toulon was most intimidating match of my career, warns Munster hooker

Damien Varley, Munster, is tackled by Christian Loamanu, left, and Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Toulon. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Damien Varley, Munster, is tackled by Christian Loamanu, left, and Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Toulon. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

If winning can be achieved through intimidation alone, it is little wonder bookmakers will offer as much as 3/1 against Munster advancing to the final edition of their beloved Heineken Cup next weekend.

Toulon are unbackable favourites; the defending champions have revealed not even a wafer-thin line of reasoning that inclines one to disbelieve their pretensions to retain their title in Cardiff next month.

Within the satchel bearers' utterly unsympathetic absence of sentiment lies their tale of the tape.

Aside from the weight of numbers on the field, the statistics off it similarly add ballast to their claims.

Six of the last eight Heineken Cup semi-finals have been won by clubs with home country advantage. In normal time, the away club has only triumphed in 12 of the 36 Heineken Cup semi-finals – with two matches ending in draws – appropriately, a 3/1 shot.

There have been 11 tournament semi-finals between French and Irish clubs to date; France lead the way by six wins to Ireland's five.

Everywhere one looks, the runes point towards Munster's championship claims ending in ruins.

At the very least, Munster supporters may mutter quietly betwixt novenas this week, they're not bound for the Felix Mayol to tackle Toulon.

For the last time they did so, they had nowhere to look.


Ask Damien Varley just what lingers in his memory bank from his last trip to France to face the sport's galacticos, in January 2011, and Munster's redoubtable hooker shudders at the flashback.

Indeed, one is almost moved to guide him towards the nearest chaise longue for a sustained session with a sports psychologist.

"It was probably the most intimidating game I've played in my Munster career," recalls the 30-year-old of the stunning 32-16 pool defeat which ended 13 consecutive years of knockout European rugby.

"I remember getting off the bus and walking through a kind of tunnel of supporters and the abuse we were getting. You could feel the heat and the passion from them and then we probably didn't turn up that day.

"We gave away some stupid penalties, we'd sin bins and we were just physically dominated for the entire game. That's my memory of Toulon."

The Stade Velodrome in Marseille beckons them this weekend; a venue no less intimidating but at least one not held to the bosom of the Toulon team as intimately as that of their usual teeming homestead.

Indeed, Cardiff triumphed here in the 2010 Challenge Cup final, a 28-21 victory that only briefly stymied the growth of Toulon into a giant of the European game, now placing them upon the brink of a fourth European final in five seasons.

Toulon, then, have developed a European pedigree of rich substance; even if doing so with indecent haste and hastened by indecent riches.

Munster aim to demonstrate that, rather than being perceived as a fixture in a receding European history, they can avowedly declare their interest in penning even newer scripts of outlandish achievement.

"We're probably a new side now, a younger side," appreciates Varley, one of a possible six survivors who started that chastening January afternoon just three years ago.

"And we've drawn on our experiences and our losses from last year, which has fed into our ongoing progression this year. So I think it's an exciting fixture for us, an exciting time."

And yet, for all that Munster will seek to deny recent history, they cannot seek to be utterly immune from its lessons.

Within their ranks this weekend, presumably, will be Donncha O'Callaghan, a reminder of Munster's first booming statement of intent in this competition in 2000, when they first did what they seek to repeat this weekend.

That was winning a semi-final on French soil, as they did so brilliantly in the broiling Bordeaux sun against the mighty Toulouse.

His presence is, at once, a reminder of the glue that binds this squad together but also, in the absence of so many of his then contemporaries, a re-affirmation that the jersey he wears is merely passed on from player to player.

And those players don't live on reputations; they live up to them.

"We came under a lot of criticism last year," notes Varley.

"But after the win against Harlequins in the quarter-final, people began to respect the younger guys and the evolving team that it is.

"The last time I played Toulon, most of that team is retired now so, you know, I think we're capable of big performances.

"It's just that we probably haven't been consistent enough with them. Playing Toulouse in the quarter-final was our first one where we were able to play consistently for a long period of time.

"The standards at Munster for the last 14 or 15 years are still the same and we'll be drawing on that to progress further."

As they speak of the build-up to the quarter-final, one emotion more than any other threads its way through their history – fear.

"There is always an element of fear with us," explains Varley.

"In the Heineken Cup we have such high expectations. Going down here against Toulon, it is going to be a huge battle.

"It is one of my biggest memories from a few years ago playing them in France, being destroyed up front. We expect nothing more than that they will try to do that again.

"They have grown from strength to strength over the past number of years and they are an extremely fast and physical side.

"So there is definitely a bit of fear and we are going to have our work cut out for us and do a lot of work in the coming week in preparation for it."

Munster will have to be at their greatest to emerge from this challenge. Rob Penney suggests it will require the game of their lives. Varley does not demur.

"It's cup rugby for us from now on," he accedes readily.

"After a little slip-up in the Pro12 last week we've put ourselves into a position where it's cup rugby and in the last two league fixtures we have, we need to come away with a lot of points.

"Equally, you're talking standards. Going away to Marseille this week to play Toulon, it's going to require the performance of everyone's careers to date."

If Munster seek to ascend to glory once more, they must remember that the experienced climbers are never intimidated by the peaks that await them. They are inspired by them.

Irish Independent

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