THERE IS ABSOLUTELY no room for error on Heineken Cup semi-final weekend.
The stakes are high, the pressure is on. An entire season will be judged on the result of this one game.
And that’s why it’s so encouraging to see head coach Rob Penney take a risk in what will be the pivotal area in Toulon v Munster.
The selection of Sean Dougall at openside flanker ahead of Tommy O’Donnell is a huge statement of intent from Penney. The Kiwi has picked an uncapped back row, but it is one specifically designed to take on Toulon where they are at their strongest.
The Munster back-room team will have spent much of the past 19 days going over footage of Toulon with a fine-tooth comb and coming up with a way of disrupting what has proven to be a juggernaut of a back-row.
O’Donnell is a modern number 7; a hard-running, ball-carrying openside in the mould of David Wallace and Sean O’Brien who have adapted into the role. Dougall, though, is a specialist, a natural.
The ex-Rotherham Titan does not have the bulk and explosive presence of O’Donnell to match Juan Fernandez Lobbe or Steffon Armitage in a direct tracking role. Instead, Penney and Anthony Foley will be asking him to use his sense of timing and tackling accuracy to be a nuisance, rather than a roadblock to what up to now has been the dominant unit in European rugby for over a year.
It may not work, of course. There will always be doubts when you take a man seen as long-term fixture in the province’s back row and replace him with a player who has effectively been your second stringer all season. But sticking with the team Toulon expected to run out in Stade Velodrome was just as likely to end in tears.
It’s a brave call by Penney and he won’t receive any plaudits if the bookies are proven right and the visitors slip to defeat. This could be the New Zealander’s last big selection call and a man is driven as he is wouldn’t have wanted to board the plane to Japan wondering, ‘what if’.
O’Donnell will still have a big role to play. The recovery of JJ Hanrahan to take a place on the bench is a welcome boost, but that fillip is tempered by the news that Donnacha Ryan has not recovered in time. All in all, the visitors have precious few impact subs to call upon, but O’Donnell can fill that role perfectly.
Munster’s aim will be to once again produce a fast start and lay down an early statement of intent both physically and on the scoreboard as they did against Toulouse.
If they can place just a seed of doubt within the reigning champions and make them force their game and chase a scoreline, then the more subtle presence of Dougall may be just the thing to force errors and level the playing field.