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Pulling the strings


WHEN the draw for the 2010/11 Heineken Cup pool stages was made, we knew there would be days like this. Nothing to do with the reflections of Van Morrison's 'aul wan, rather the recognition that a group containing no soft touches was going to come to a critical juncture for Munster, as they sought to maintain a 12-season quarter-final qualification record.

D-Day has come in round five, for, as returning totem Paul O'Connell pointed out to the squad this week, Toulon is everything. Yes, Munster could maintain their impressive Magners League form all the way to the title, while continuing the encouraging development of younger players, but, lose to Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol tomorrow (3.0), and the heart is ripped out of their season.


All week, the comparisons have been drawn with last season's trip to the Stade Aime Giral to take on then French champions Perpignan. The same sense of trepidation and reserve among supporters and media, the same referee in England's Dave Pearson, a cash-heavy French side packed with internationals going into the game with bullish fervour and the same type of rabid home support at an intimidating venue.

On that occasion, Tony McGahan's side produced a performance that ranks No 1 on Munster's list of top pool-stage displays over the previous 15 years, outstripping even the 'Miracle Match' victory over Gloucester, which was achieved in the familiar environs of Thomond Park.

A Groundhog Day experience tomorrow is the optimum outcome for Munster and their fans, but a more worrying, and relevant example, is the semi-final defeat to Biarritz in San Sebastien. Pearson was on the whistle that day also and, like Biarritz, Toulon are a French side with a limited approach, but one with the power to make it count.

Imanol Harinordoquy was the inspirational figure that damp afternoon as Biarritz played meat-and-two-veg rugby that relied on a dominant scrum and the penalty kicking of Dimitri Yachvili, who kicked six of them in the French side's 18-7 victory.

For Yachvili, read Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon's points machine and the one selection that indicates how much Toulon mean business. It is easy to forget that Wilkinson was a devastatingly effective running out-half during his peak years between 2000 and 2003 but, having emerged from an injury marathon that would have ended the careers of less driven men, England's 2003 World Cup hero is the quintessential 'get the job done' man.

Toulon left him on the bench when they travelled to Thomond Park in October, when, if they were truly serious about a smash-and-grab Cup performance, they would have started Wilkinson ahead of Felipe Contepomi at 10.

His presence there tomorrow, with Contepomi in the centre, is a statement of intent and a warning to Munster to stay on the right side of Pearson.

Then there is Joe van Niekerk. As South African signings go, this guy is right up there. Ireland have had a mixed bag in this regard, the significant contributions of Shaun Payne and Trevor Halstead being weighed down by the relative disappointment of CJ van der Linde, Jean de Villiers and Ulster's Springbok contingent.

But Van Niekerk brings an Imanol-esque inspiration to the Toulon back-row which, with Juan-Fernandez Lobbe at blind-side and Wallaby legend George Smith at open-side looks an extremely well-balanced and formidable unit.

And so to the scrum. No Carl Hayman due to the foreign player restrictions, but still a unit to be feared, particularly in front of a home support that expects and demands dominance in this set-piece. It is a day for John Hayes to show why he has won more than 100 caps for his country and why the Ireland management have such faith in his durability.

Munster have identified the scrum as an area where they need to achieve parity at the very least and it has been a busy period for scrum coach Paul McCarthy -- if they buckle here tomorrow, they are banjaxed.

If Wilkinson's presence is a declaration by the home side then so too is O'Connell's for Munster. No matter how intense the match-simulation in training, it is does not equate with proper game-time and the second-row goes into this contest under-cooked.

On that basis, his selection is something of a gamble by McGahan, but an intelligent and calculated one. One feels sympathy for Mick O'Driscoll who has done everything, and more, that was asked of him this season, but starting O'Connell carries a psychological significance that could prove crucial in the face of Toulon's early onslaught.

It would be remarkable if O'Connell lasted the full 80 minutes and O'Driscoll will have a key role to play if things go according to plan and Munster need second-half consolidation. Tomas O'Leary will have a similar duty off the bench as Peter Stringer's assured form this season is rewarded with a starting place. His swift delivery is central to Munster's intention of getting past their recent history of slow starts and rattling Toulon early on.

In this regard, the bold selection would have been Johne Murphy in the centre next to Keith Earls, but there is merit to opting for the in-your-face directness of Sam Tuitupou at 12 also. The All Black is not renowned for his off-loading skills, although he does have that capacity, but if he can make the initial inroads to suck in Toulon defenders, Stringer's swift release can allow Murphy, Earls and Paul Warwick to exploit the subsequent gaps.

The key for Tuitupou and Lifeimi Mafi, when he is introduced off the bench, is not to allow their natural exuberance for contact get out of hand for, not only will Wilkinson ruthlessly punish any indiscretion, cards tend to be decisive in tense encounters such as this.

Finally, there is Ronan O'Gara. Over the course of 12 seasons of European achievement the simple truth is that when O'Gara is on song, Munster hit their notes also. The out-half is having an excellent season and facing off with his old adversary and Lions colleague Wilkinson (they first came up against each other in 2001) is the just the type of challenge to bring out the best in O'Gara.

He will be targeted by Toulon, but that has been the case for 10 years and David Wallace, ready to have a profound influence on proceedings, is on hand to help out.

The three scenarios one can foresee tomorrow are a thumping Perpignan-style victory as Munster intensity blows Toulon away; a Biarritz-style defeat as Toulon grind out a win based on scrum superiority and Wilkinson's kicking; or a narrow, away triumph founded on drive, desire and masterminded by O'Gara.

That is the way we see it panning out. Toulon are noveau riche, European novices, while Munster know exactly what is required and the exact consequences of defeat. That fear factor can be the difference and should be in this case because, for Munster, there is no day after tomorrow.

Verdict: Munster

TOULON -- R Wulf; P Sackey, G Lovobalavu, F Contepomi, C Loamanu; J Wilkinson, P Mignoni; L Emmanuelli, S Bruno, D Kubriashvili; C Samson, D Schofield; JF Lobbe, G Smith, J van Niekerk (capt). Reps: JC Orioli, S Taumoepeau, M Merabet, J El Abd, F Auelua, R Lamont, L Magnaval, K Chesney.

MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; J Coughlan, D Wallace, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, D Hurley, T Buckley, M O'Driscoll, D Ryan, N Ronan, T O'Leary, L Mafi.

REF -- D Pearson (England).

Toulon v Munster,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 3.0

Irish Independent