‘WHERE DO YOU want me to start?”
Rob Penney’s inquisitive response, to the question of what makes Toulon so good, is a perfectly valid one.
Munster stare into one of the toughest tasks of their proud Heineken Cup history today as they meet reigning champions, current favourites and in-form domestic table-toppers. Though the match will take place a few hours down the road from Toulon’s usual fortress Mayol, Marseille’s Stade Velodrome promises no less of a daunting prospect.
“They’ve got internationals across the board,” continues Penney, “a massive amount of test experience and their squad back-up is equally as impressive.”
That wealth of experience throughout the ranks can be directly attributed to the wealth of RCT’s president Mourad Boudjellal. And the comic book millionaire is never shy about inserting himself into the framed celebration shots that he has created.
Boudjellal, though, will not cross the white line until after full-time this afternoon. His cash money has no effect on hundreds of collisions or the kicks at goal that will determine the outcome.
The ill-conceived theory of Toulon bearing the shallow traits of a mercenary should have fizzled out with the appearance of their Heineken Cup medals on Lansdowne Road last May. For some in this island, though, it took Leinster getting steamrolled in the quarter-finals to believe the hype.
Munster deserve a dedicated fanfare too. Since slipping to defeat to Edinburgh in the opening match of their pool last October they have shown remarkable durability to come through to the knock-out stage. There, their season peaked with the high-octane demolition of Toulouse.
There is no escaping their underdog role today, but while traditional wisdom says they revel in these circumstances team leaders such as Conor Murray are keen to set their own standards.
“It does annoy me when we hear the underdog tag,” says the scrum-half, “and I know we’ll have it against Toulon because of their international stars, but… for example: Dave Foley was up against [Patricio] Albacete against Toulouse. I’m sure he was quite nervous, but he probably surprised himself the way he played against a player like that.”
Murray’s view is heavily coloured by his time away in camp with Ireland and the Lions. A time when he has played and trained alongside world class talents and content to come back to Munster knowing the standard around the UL training base was not too far removed.
“When you see things like that happen, it’s just frustrating that we don’t rate ourselves. In the Munster squad I don’t think players back themselves enough.”It’s because we’re coming up against teams who have been there and done it. Well, we need to do that now to rectify it and the way to rectify that is to start winning things.”
One boost Munster have experienced heading into this foreboding fixture is that Murray will not have the distraction of being asked to cover the out-half position or pit his wits against Jonny Wilkinson should anything happen to Ian Keatley.
JJ Hanrahan has made a good enough recovery to take a spot on the bench. Alongside him, will be perhaps the one surprise omission from Penney’s starting line-up; Tommy O’Donnell.
With Toulon’s stellar names of Steffon Armitage, Juan Smith and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe excelling at the breakdown, Penney has selected a natural openside flanker in Sean Dougall in an effort to combat the Top14 leaders’ primary weapon.
If Dougall can provide a clinical low tackle on each and every powerful ball carrier that comes from the Toulon pack (+Mathieu Bastareaud), then Munster will be some way towards an upset.
The only problem is that Bernard Laporte’s side possess many more threats as a contingency plan. Namely; Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Drew Mitchell, Bryan Habana…
“The word journeymen is not a word you would use for them,” Penney said with a smile this week.
“They are genuine quality rugby players – they’re very proud men. That’s why they’re having the success: guys that will work really hard for each other. You put that together with the talent they’ve got and the experience then they’re a hard nut to crack.”
If all of this sounds familiar, don’t be too alarmed by the Deja Vu. It’s 12 months since Munster travelled to the south of France to take on the best team in Europe in the semi-finals. They lost, but with the masterful Ronan O’Gara pulling each and every string, Clermont were given an almighty fright before scrambling into the Dublin final.
‘That’s the difference between good and great’
There is no ROG this time around, but despite the result in Montpellier a year ago, the performance that day continues to be a watershed moment for this growing Munster squad. As Penney prepares to take his leave from Munster and Europe, his challenge to his team is simple: Make use of every lesson learned in that defeat.
“It’s all another layer of experience that a player needs for success. Some go forward and utilise it, and some don’t – that’s the difference between good and great.
“We’ve had the experience of last year. Obviously the guys with the Heineken Cup victory experience too and they’ll lead from the front; this type of fixture doesn’t intimidate them. But we’ve got to get the whole team on the same page and thinking the same way and committed at the same level to get a chance of a positive outcome.”
The Kiwi added: ”We’ll try and negate them as best we can and throw everything we have at them - I just hope the guys embrace it and enjoy it, aren’t inhibited by anything physical or mental.”
If all goes according to plan, the only question remaining will be, ‘are you going to Cardiff?’
Toulon: Delon Armitage; Drew Mitchell, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana; Jonny Wilkinson (c), Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Xavier Chiocci, Craig Burden, Carl Hayman, Danie Rossouw, Jocelino Suta, Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage.
Replacements: Jean-Charles Orioli, Alexandre Menini, Martin Castrogiovanni, Virgile Bruni, David Smith, Maxime Mermoz, Michael Claassens, Konstantine Mikautadze
Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, BJ Botha; Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell; CJ Stander, Sean Dougall, James Coughlan.Replacements: Duncan Casey, James Cronin, John Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.