Monday 16 December 2019

It's time to achieve impossible once more

Paul O'Connell is made for the sort of challenge facing Munster on Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell is made for the sort of challenge facing Munster on Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Denis Leamy

I think it is fair to say that achieving victory in Marseille on Sunday would be right up there with anything Munster has ever done in the Heineken Cup.

Toulon are just so powerful it is hard to see the areas where Munster might have the advantage over them, but collectively that might be a different story.

A year ago Munster were being told that they hadn't a chance against Clermont Auvergne, that the big-money side from the French league was just too powerful to be stopped and all that. And yet it was a game Munster were in to the end and they could easily have won it.

This week the players will have been hearing the same thing but now they are a year older and have the experience of playing a Heineken Cup semi-final in France under their belt.

They will look back at that game against Clermont and see where they might have won it, what extra yard they need to go this time round. They will take a lot of heart from that.


They will also take a lot from how well they have done again this season to qualify, doing it the hard way after losing their opening game. This side is building for a few years now and they will feel their time has come.

Toulon have assembled a vast array of global talent – they can bring on an international to replace an international.

But it will not have gone unnoticed in Munster that they choked in the last two Top 14 finals and, let's face it, Clermont should probably have beaten them in last year's Heineken Cup final as well.

Guys like Paul O'Connell are made for this environment. He will set a massive standard all this week.

Players will also draw from the experience of others like Donncha O'Callaghan and Denis Hurley, who know what it is like to play in a winning Heineken Cup final team.

Munster have been down this road many times before, their build-up will be impeccable, they will know how much emotion to work into the equation, they will revel in their underdog status and they will draw inspiration from each other.

It's hard to believe that only three of Munster's semi-finals have been in Ireland and, in any event, two of those three semi-finals in Ireland were against Leinster.

It's remarkable that this will be the eighth time in 11 semi-finals that Munster have had to play outside Ireland but that is just the way it has fallen.

Stade Velodrome is a home ground for Toulon, they play a couple of games there each season, but Munster supporters will travel in huge numbers and will make sure they are seen and heard. Just like Paulie, they are made for this environment.

It will be so crucial that Munster start well and stay in the game. This Toulon side is not one you want to be trying to catch. Munster just need to get over the opening 20 minutes, then get to 40, to 60 – create the doubt in Toulon's mind and then go for the kill. It is easier said than done but it has been done before. They will need to be disciplined and not give cheap penalties away, least of all to Jonny Wilkinson.

He will slot them over from all angles, but for a team with so much talent Toulon really do depend a lot on their kickers. They just seem to bludgeon teams and then pick off the points.

Tackles will have to count every single time, rucks hit accurately and with impact and scrums will require maximum effort every time. It will be that sort of game. Munster know that and it will have been drilled into them over and over again in the past couple of weeks.

Toulon are beatable but only if you attain that high level of execution. Munster have done that in the past, several times, and that is why the task this weekend, if accomplished, will be right up there with anything they have ever done.

Toulon will look to the quality of the list of stars they have assembled and, in fairness, it is an impressive list, but Munster will look to their tradition in this competition, their history of achieving the impossible before.

They came close last year when nobody gave them a chance. Munster have often revelled in that environment and they will feel the time is right for them to do it again.

They will believe that their time has come. Let's hope it has. Wouldn't it be some win?


ROG gave me the run-around in first semi-final experience

My first involvement in a Heineken Cup semi-final was in 2002 when Munster played Castres in Beziers but not only was I not playing; I wasn't even at the match.

My role in that semi-final win was confined to something less glamourous. I was 19 at the time and had trained with Munster the previous summer and was on a development contract but had been told by Declan Kidney to concentrate on my club game and they would bring me back in during the summer.

Then one day leading up to the Castres match I got a call from Deccie to go to CIT as he had a job for me.

All of the backs were there but I was the only forward – I think the forwards might have been doing a session in Limerick – and the job Deccie had for me was to run at Rog every time.

Castres had a good No 7 at the time and Deccie wanted to get Rog more accustomed to someone racing at him when he was kicking.

So all the backs lined up and each time I would shoot out of the line at Rog. We didn't know each other but I would say he was sick of the sight of me by that evening – drop goal after drop goal, each kick from the hand and so on, out I would dart at him. I don't know if it ultimately did him any good in the match but Deccie joked afterwards that it was about time I had done something to earn my development contract!

I joined up with Munster that summer and was offered a contract and thankfully got to have a more hands-on role in a few Heineken Cup semi-finals.

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