I CAN’T EVER remember playing a club team as laden with talent and as in-form as Toulon are right now.
From talking to fellow ex-players and other people in the game, it’s rare that we’ve come across any side as powerful as this Toulon one, and they seem to be playing for each other as well. The way they batted Leinster to one side in the quarter-finals and overran them was very impressive.
Leinster obviously didn’t have their greatest game, but Toulon were so dangerous when they had the ball in their hands. It’s hard to see where there’s a weak link for Munster to take advantage of, or where pressure can be put on them.
I would be fearful, but I certainly feel that Munster are one of the teams who can go down to Marseille and overturn them. Still, if Toulon really turn up like they did against Leinster, then it’s going to be a very hard game for Munster.
Steffon Armitage is a real leader on the pitch for the French side, and he is one of the top poachers at the breakdown in the Heineken Cup. Not only that, his contributions around the park are immense thanks to the work rate and mobility he has. His effort to chase down Rob Kearney at one stage against Leinster after sprinting from 22 to 22 is memorable; those little things make all the difference.
If he has another big game, it’ll take all of Munster’s might to stop him. Having said that, Rob Penney can count on a very good back row himself. CJ Stander was superb when he came on the last day, and James Coughlan is always reliable.
On first phase, Sean Dougall’s role is going to be a big thing, making sure that he’s tracking Armitage, or whoever the turnover threat is, and not being beaten to the breakdown. You can’t let him into that position over the ball, because it’s too late by then.
Whether it means hitting him side-on as he looks to get his hands on the ball, or you’re getting in first and blocking off that space, it’s imperative to nullify him. Armitage seems to do a lot of his damage around the park in the looser play though, and not always off first phase.
It’s going to take a 15-man effort to keep him out of the game.
There is quality throughout the Toulon pack, not just at the set-piece but in pure ball carrying terms too. Their team is littered with guys who are excellent in that area of the game, so Munster need to find ways to slow the flow of attacking possession they get.
That starts with the scrum and line-out, which provide that quality first phase ball. We saw how Munster stole a couple of early line-outs from Toulouse in the quarter-final and that hugely affected the momentum of the game at Thomond Park.
Paul [O'Connell] will obviously have a few tricks up his sleeve in that regard, and the depth of his analysis on Toulon’s line-out patterns could help them to pick off a few of the French side’s throws.
Alongside Paulie, Dave Foley will be an important part of the jigsaw for Munster. He’s an aggressive, feisty player and he’s developed physically in a major way over the last year. I used to feel sorry for him, because any time we went for food he had to stuff his face just to bulk up. He didn’t enjoy it and we’d be there watching him shovel buns and desserts into himself to get the calories on board. Not a bad complaint for others maybe!
He’s turned into a fine athlete and hopefully he’s going to have another big game tomorrow. It’s certainly the biggest game of his career, but I think you could say that about the majority of the Munster players.
Toulon have extraordinary power, and more importantly, they have players hitting their peak form. Look at Mathieu Bastareaud, who had a quiet Six Nations up until the Ireland game in Paris. That triggered something in him and he has kept it going ever since, maybe even carrying some of that hurt from defeat to Ireland.
Munster will thrive off their underdog status, and they can be relied to raise their game above and beyond. Fear drove the performance levels up against Toulouse, and that will be an even bigger factor tomorrow.
I think Munster have to take Toulon through the phases, wear them out and create those gaps in defence. Their phase game in dragging teams across the pitch, forcing them to cover ground in defence has worked well in the Heineken Cup, so that gives some confidence.
Munster have the players to make breaks in the likes of Keith Earls and Casey Laulala, but it’s going to take something special. Penney’s players will have to get everything 100% right and make very few mistakes to pull this off.
@wa22y played 197 times for Munster, won 72 Test caps with Ireland and appeared in three Tests with The British and Irish Lions. He has called on people to support Special Olympics Ireland by taking part in the Great Limerick Run on the 4th of May.