You can't just write them off, but this is a massive ask
Red Army will need big games from key men to repel Toulon onslaught, writes Jim Glennon
Munster face their ninth trip on the road in their 11th, and last, Heineken Cup semi-final and there's currently no tougher challenge in the European game than a trip to the south of France to face the awesome strength of Toulon.
The road Munster travel is one with which they are quite familiar. As in the 2010/'11 season when their seemingly customary annual right of access to the knockout stages was closed off. It's a challenge too which Leinster and their supporters recently witnessed. The fact that Toulon are away from their home fortress of Le Stade Felix Mayol may be a source of some solace for Munster, but the State Velodrome in Marseille is to Toulon what the Aviva Stadium is to Leinster – a home away from home.
Ireland's last team standing are as well placed as any of the semi-finalists to test les Toulonnais such is the depth of their experience of that part of the world, yet the physical challenge awaiting them is of a magnitude in excess of anything they've ever faced. The ferocity of the exchanges in Toulon's quarter-final win over Leinster was such that Matt O'Connor's team were fortunate to be level at half-time. Minutes into the second half, however, they yielded to the pressure and never recovered.
Munster must stand up to the physical intensity presented to them by Toulon. Players like the South African trio of Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith, and Craig Burden carried the ball to massive effect against Leinster and, in the centre, Mathieu Bastareaud continued his outstanding form. Their game plan is as simple as it is effective – carry with such pace and aggression that the opposition will be, literally, beaten into submission.
Bernard Laporte has courted controversy in recent weeks with his outspoken criticism of referees, resulting in a ban from match-day operations; it shouldn't be overlooked though that he has also put together a highly capable back division. Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson have returned from injury and the balance and poise provided at the 10-12 axis by the combination of Wilkinson and Matt Giteau can, at times, be irresistible. The veteran outhalf is very much the team's guiding hand, with the Australian providing the creativity which facilitates the quality backs outside him.
The absence of Peter O'Mahony will be keenly felt by Munster. While they excelled in his absence against Toulouse in the quarter-final, the challenge today is of a different nature entirely. His replacement, South African CJ Stander, has been very much a bit-part player since his arrival last season, but will be key today. Against Leinster in the Aviva, and against Toulouse too, he showed real physicality and a hunger for the fray which will be needed today. Along with the likes of Paul O'Connell, Damien Varley, and Dave Kilcoyne, Stander will have to bring the fight to Toulon from the start to subdue the home forwards for as long as possible.
Leinster enjoyed some success at the scrum. Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, and Mike Ross didn't appear to be suffering any undue hardship and earned several penalties. Along with the maul, the scrum, and its management by referee Wayne Barnes, will be a key area of focus for Munster if they're to have a chance. Gaining the upper hand in these areas will be a basic requirement.
On the other hand, Leinster encountered significant problems at both breakdown and lineout. While some of their difficulties from touch were self-inflicted, getting quick ball in the face of such physicality is fraught with difficulty. Steffon Armitage and his back-row colleagues thrive in the wake of impact. The Munster back-row will have a major job in trying to counteract them.
Munster may have won in dramatic fashion at Perpignan in the pool stage but the Perpignan and Toulon teams are poles apart. Substitute JJ Hanrahan was the matchwinner then but Ian Keatley has grown into the famous No 10 jersey through the season, and is the man for the job. Today, undoubtedly, represents his biggest challenge to date – 12 months ago in the corresponding game against Clermont in Montpellier, Ronan O'Gara gave a masterclass of game-management and tactical kicking which almost bore fruit against all the odds. Keatley will do well to come close to that level of near perfection and all of his backline colleagues will need to step up to lessen the burden.
It's a tough ask for Munster, maybe the toughest of all their semi-finals. Toulon are a really formidable outfit and are hot favourites with the bookies for good reason. But Munster wrote the first unlikely chapter of Irish success in France in the competition's early years and it would be apt were they to finish the story with yet another chapter for their book of 'greatest ever' victories.
Only a fool would write them off.
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