Wednesday 20 March 2019

On your marks, get set, go for it!

Toulon heavy hitters will test squad to limit

Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Simon Zebo, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Mike Sherry hard at work. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Simon Zebo, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Mike Sherry hard at work. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

David Wallace

It's the biggest week in the season, the Champions Cup quarter-final is finally here, and Munster have the majority of their international players back for a clash against the mighty Toulon.

Last weekend's 19-7 win over Scarlets was the perfect preparation ahead of this game. It was a fantastic victory considering where Scarlets are, and how Munster were on the back of two Guinness PRO14 defeats recently. It also acts to prove the point that Munster are so strong at home and they can take any team - even Toulon.

It was a highly impressive win with James Hart, Robin Copeland and Alex Wootton all scoring. It was made all the better when you are missing most of your internationals and you compare yourselves to Scarlets.

Scarlets are a team that have lots of attacking threats, certainly out wide, and they are very similar in a lot of ways to Toulon. The way they play, you could see the damage they could do in last year's PRO12 final. That style is a challenge for defences and there are massive positives for Munster in overcoming them.

Although they were caught a little bit narrow for Scarlets' first try, to hold them scoreless from there on was a massive confidence boost and the defence will need to build on that.

It was fantastic to beat Scarlets in the breakdown too with players like Tadhg Beirne and James Davies sniffing around. You could see with Ireland in the Six Nations, the breakdown is absolutely key to everything.

The guys coming back from international duty, without Keith Earls of course, will bring back their lofty standards as well and try to reintegrate them into Munster.

Ireland were so dominant at the breakdown during their Grand Slam-winning campaign it meant that the ball was invariably quick. There were very few turnovers considering the amount of possession Ireland had and you'd hope to see the same from Munster this weekend.

Momentum is always going to be important. It's key to starve Toulon of possession but with their skills and talent, it's even more crucial in this game.

Daunting This is turning out to be a daunting prospect with Toulon coming to town. You look at their team and they are a serious outfit. They beat Clermont 49-0 at the weekend. Clermont are struggling a bit but nonetheless that was an unbelievable scoreline against fellow European quarter-finalists.

Malakai Fekitoa is back in there, Mathieu Bastareaud is in great form. Chris Ashton has scored a few tries in these big games over the years and has just clinched a record 21 in a season in the Top 14. He is also no stranger to Thomond Park having played with Northampton Saints and Saracens there.

The team sheet in general will be ridiculous. They have strength in depth. They will be individually phenomenal. But it's how they perform as a team that will be crucial and here's Munster's key strength.

In most of Munster's games in the Champions Cup at home this season they have been rock-solid in defence and they have used this to dominate and smother teams.

Of course it will be more challenging to do that to this Toulon team but here lies the extra challenge of making it to the knockout stages. Although having said that it could be argued that this weekend's fixture may be a stiffer contest than either Clermont or Racing 92 should they progress to the semi-finals.

Munster will need to get off to a good start and the first ten to 15 minutes will be key to continue the momentum from last week and compose a team that hasn't played together in a long while.

Of course it's massive not to have Earls available, although Munster are very lucky to have an embarrassment of riches in the back three at the moment. But Earls is playing his best rugby right now and that is a very lofty standard anyway.

He was my player of the tournament in the Six Nations. Going forward, defence, his sharpness, skill-set, he is just playing with confidence.

It is a shame but hopefully his team-mates get over the line this weekend and we'll see him back in red for Munster's remaining big games.

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