Monday 22 January 2018

Reds draw hope from old French connection

Munster's Keith Earls in action against Jonathan Holland during training ahead of their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon on Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Munster's Keith Earls in action against Jonathan Holland during training ahead of their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon on Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

John Fallon

Munster hope that the experience of playing five Heineken Cup semi-finals on French soil will stand to them at Stade Velodrome on Sunday when they bid to oust reigning champions Toulon.

Thousands of Munster supporters will make the trip to Marseille this weekend hoping to see Rob Penney's men go at least one better than last season and secure a place in the final for the fifth time.

Two of the victorious semi-finals were staged in France, with Munster defeating Toulouse in 2000 by 31-25 in Bordeaux to reach their first decider, a heart-breaking 9-8 loss to Northampton. Two years later – 12 months after a 16-15 semi-final loss to Stade Francais in Lille – Munster booked another place in the Heineken Cup final when they ousted current Top 14 champions Castres 25-17 in Beziers, only to go down to Leicester in the decider.

Munster's second one-point Heineken Cup semi-final loss in France came in 2003 when Toulouse edged them 13-12 at Le Stadium, and with the last-four clash with Biarritz being moved to San Sebastian in Spain four years ago, the Reds were not back in France for a semi-final until last year, when a gallant effort against Clermont Auvergne came up 16-10 short.

In between, Munster played three Heineken Cup semi-finals in Ireland and one in England, defeating Saracens 18-16 at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, on their way to winning the 2008 title against Toulouse.

Two of the three semi-finals in Ireland ended in defeat – they went down 37-32 to Wasps in 2004 and 25-6 to Leinster at Croke Park in 2009.

But, of course, it was the 2006 semi-final win over Leinster at Lansdowne Road, running out easy winners by 30-6, which paved the way for the historic first Heineken Cup triumph, when Biarritz were put to the sword 23-19 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

The Heineken Cup final – the last before the competition changes to a new format – will return to the Millennium Stadium for the fifth time next month.

Munster have graced it on three of those previous occasions – Leinster doing the honours on the fourth – and victory on Sunday by the most experienced team in the competition will set up another great day for the Red Army in Cardiff.

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