Murray fitness key but Munster hold all the aces against Toulouse
Just when Munster fans felt they could begin to believe in a better future, this week has come and kicked the ladder out from under them.
Donnacha Ryan's impending departure and the uncertainty surrounding Rassie Erasmus' next move have put additional pressure on the team. After two years out of the European knock-out stages, they know chances like this must be taken.
Ryan is one of two remaining links from the last Heineken Cup win in 2008 (when they beat Toulouse in the final) nine years ago on the playing staff. Next year, Keith Earls will fly that flag alone.
During the pool stages, they came through a period of grief and adversity that could have derailed a lesser team. There is an essence of destiny to this season and today is another step along the way.
Toulouse have not improved from the team who gave up more than 40 points at Thomond Park in 2014. Munster have gone backwards since too, but this season they have regained a lot of the lost ground.
The four-time champions bring with them instant name-recognition and a host of star players, but they are 10th in the Top 14 table and squeezed past Connacht to reach this point.
They have shown glimpses of potential over the course of this season, notably when they ran Wasps close away from home, and have plenty of force with which they will look to over-whelm Erasmus' men but it should not be enough.
Munster have shown a cleverness to match their intensity this season, a sharp edge to make what is a simple game-plan so hard to play against.
In Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, they have an off-field brains trust of international repute, and Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones are steadily building their own reputations as coaches.
On the field, they have a war-time consigliere in Peter O'Mahony and an instrument of rare force in CJ Stander. Ryan will be fuelled by a desire to finish with something tangible, while their backline combines power and pace.
The link between it all is Conor Murray, and his fitness is the greatest concern of all.
If Murray plays, Munster should win. If his shoulder cannot take the punishment, then the province's odds will narrow.
For while Duncan Williams is enjoying a decent season, he does not possess the world-class attributes that the man he covers brings to the table.
The kicking game, the control of the tempo, the defensive interventions and the capacity to break make the Patrickswell man the favourite for the Lions No 9 jersey this summer.
Erasmus was always going to name him in the starting XV and all eyes among the early arrivers at Thomond Park will be fixed on the tall figure of Murray.
If he plays, then the pack's effort will be rewarded with silver service for Tyler Bleyendaal, who plays the biggest game of his time with the province.
Opposite him is the Jean-Marc Doussain, a player on whom you don't want your hopes to rest.
Rory Scannell and Jaco Taute will be tasked with getting the ball wide where Toulouse are vulnerable, an area where Earls, Darren Sweetnam and Simon Zebo will hope to thrive.
If they are to do that, then the big men must do their job in the tight. If Munster can hold their own in the set-piece, they'll be on their way.
They have worked hard to get here, earned a prized home quarter-final against a lower-seed team.
That team may bear the badge of Europe's most successful club, but this team is not near the level of the teams that earned such a fearsome reputation.
If they play with pace and patience, Erasmus' men will book the semi-final place. They may not get a better chance for some time.
Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: R Marshall, J Cronin, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, F Saili, A Conway.
Tolouse - M Médard, Y Huget, F Fritz, G Fickou, P Perez; JM Doussain, S Bézy; C Baille, L Ghiraldini, C Johnston; R Gray, Y Maestri; T Dusautoir (capt), Y Camara, F Cros. Reps: J Marchand, G Steenkamp, D Aldegheri,T Gray, P Faasalele, J Tekori, L McAlister, A Bonneval.
Ref - JP Doyle (England)
- Munster v Toulouse, Live,Sky Sports, 5.45