“AFTER THE FIRST game of the Heineken Cup this year,” Munster’s Paul O’Connell admitted, “I didn’t think we would be in the semi finals.”
Former back row legend David Wallace remarked, back in October when the province fell away to Edinburgh, that Munster were well placed for a tilt at the title. “Munster play best when their backs are against the wall,” he bullishly declared. Munster won their five remaining pool games and swatted Toulouse aside in the quarter final. Having gone on the offensive at Thomond Park, Rob Penney’s men are set to play the majority of the 80 semi final minutes with their backs firmly against the wall.
“The teams in the competition seem to be getting better and better every year,” said O’Connell. “I’ve only personally played Toulon once in the competition before [in 2011]. It was away from home and we were very well beaten [32-16]. They’re a stronger side now than they were then so it is a big, uphill task for us to go down there and try to win the game.”
The enormity of defeating the reigning Heineken Cup champions, not many miles from their back yard, is not lost on the veteran lock. “It’s a bit like the feeling you get the week you play New Zealand,” he commented. “You know how good you have to be to be in with a chance of winning the game. It’s going to be very tough but that’s what the competition is at this stage.
It will be similar to Clermont Auvergne last year. I would probably but Toulon a little bit above Clermont. They’ve incredible talent all across the team. They have recruited incredibly well — guys of exceptional character who are obviously world-class players. They seem to love playing for, and living in, Toulon. That’s a difficult thing to do — to bring so many players from different countries together — but they seem to have managed it but you see the way they play for each other, they seem to have managed it. It’s an incredibly tough task for us.”
On Tuesday, O’Connell watched an in-depth video analysis of Toulon’s comfortable quarter final victory over Leinster. He feels his interprovincial rivals were guilty of coughing possession and were second best at ruck time. “One of the things Leinster rely on,” he said, “is quick ruck ball. They retain the ball, they keep putting teams under pressure and they didn’t do that [against Toulon].
“A little bit of that may be because of Leinster but a lot of it was to do with Toulon; they were excellent at the ruck. Certainly Steffon Armitage, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Mathieu are excellent at the breakdown. If you leave them kill your momentum when you’ve got the ball, you’ll be in trouble. That is something we need to counteract.”
Munster can expect Toulon to come charging in their direction from the off. They managed to stem Clermont’s attacking tide in last season’s semi final and would have advanced to the final at Lansdowne Road but for a forward pass call that denied them a late try. “We were under savage pressure in the first half; very similar to Leinster [against Toulon]. We just hung on and hung on and hung on,” O’Connell recalled.
“In the second half, we made a little tactical shift and were able to get a try and were back in the game. That’s what you’re going to get with these guys. They have so much size and pace and power that they are going to have purple patches. You really need to defend well, hang in there and take your chances when they come… They don’t come too often but if you do that then, come the end of the game, you’ll be in with a chance.”
Stade Velodrome is some 50 kilometres away from Toulon’s Stade Felix Mayol but, to O’Connell, it is a home fixture for the French side. ‘The 16th man’ will be travelling in high numbers [an estimated 8,000] and the lock believes they will be vital to his team’s cause. “They have their finger on the pulse of the team, in that they know when the occasion is big and when team is under pressure. Then, they rise to the occasion.”
O’Connell, hoping to reach his fourth Heineken Cup final, sighs long and heavy when asked if the underdogs tag sits easily with Munster. He responds, “We will certainly be going over there with nothing to lose. When you look at the two teams on paper and when you look at the money Toulon have — the class they have, World Cup, Heineken Cup, Top 14, Super XV and Tri Nations winners — it is an incredible squad of talent.
“There is no doubt that they are the favourites. We go over there with nothing to lose but knowing that, if we put in a performance we are capable of, we have a chance of winning. We’ll need a few things to go our way but that can happen and we’ve done it before.”
Audio courtesy of the Big Red Bench on Cork’s Red FM.