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Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
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Munster prepare plan to contain 'proper Jack-in-the-box' Antoine Dupont
The French scrum-half is part of a star-studded Toulouse team heading to Limerick this weekend.

GRAHAM ROWNTREE CRACKS a wry smile when Antoine Dupont’s name is mentioned.

For a moment, it had looked as though the French superstar would not be part of the Toulouse squad set to visit Thomond Park this Sunday for the opening round of the new Champions Cup season; his red card during Les Bleus’ November win over South Africa and subsequent ban originally ruling the scrum-half out of the fixture.

However, the gifted number nine since saw his four-week ban cut to two, meaning he’ll be ready and available to pull the strings for the French side in Limerick this weekend.

“That’s typical of our luck,” says Rowntree, who is preparing to lead a team into a Champions Cup campaign for the first time as a head coach. These are the type of challenges he signed up for when he took the job.

If you’re going to advance in this competition you’ve got to deal with players like him, and we spent a lot of time looking at him this week. He’s a proper Jack-in-the-box. He’s good at everything. People underestimate his kicking game. For all his livewire activity at the base of the ruck and his pass, his kicking game is exceptional.”

Dupont is just one star attraction in a Toulouse team bursting with talent. The Top 14 leaders present a challenging start to the new European campaign but it’s one Munster should now relish given their recent upturn in form, with wins against South Africa A, Connacht and Edinburgh generating some much-welcome positivity after a slow start to life under Rowntree.

With their confidence up, Rowntree is hoping his first taste of European Cup rugby as a head coach is a day to savour, and that his team can continue to show the signs of progression evident in their recent performances. After all, they came within a penalty shootout of beating the same opposition in the quarter-finals last season.

“It is a different format, there is those additional (South African) teams but I think it will help the competition. But it is still Europe, it is special. With this cup there is a different feeling and we have been quite mindful of not mentioning it until this week because we have had two really heavy duty league games that we had to get right.

“But it is great to come in at the start of the week after two bonus point wins and be able to talk about Europe. It is a special thing, just a special thing for the club.

“I don’t think we will fall back into our old ways. I think we learned a lot trying to get a new style going on the field, a new way of training; we’ve learned a lot, I don’t think we’ll fall back.

I think you tend to fall back in life if you become complacent and there’s no way that we’ll ever be doing that. I mean, our league position, we can’t afford anything like that. We’ll just keep looking forward, excited by a new competition, excited that we’re getting some payback for all the hard work we’ve been doing on the field.”

The collective improvement has caught the eye but so too have individuals, with 26-year-old centre Antoine Frisch emerging as one of the most exciting talents in the squad.

“Tony Fresh? He is silky smooth,” Rowntree continues.

“We noticed from the get-go, silky smooth in terms of passing, movement. He has got fitter. When we signed him, he had a bit of shoulder injury and he sorted that out and got fitter. He sees things quickly. He has a very deft touch, has very good handling skills.”

antoine-frisch Craig Watson / INPHO Antoine Frisch has looked sharp in recent weeks. Craig Watson / INPHO / INPHO

A hint of a smile rises again. “I can recognise that from my playing days and me as a player.”

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Those playing days saw Rowntree win this competition twice, so it’s a tournament he deeply respects. How’d he love to start his latest European journey with a big scalp at Thomond Park, with over 20,000 tickets now sold for the game.

“I can’t wait for Sunday at Thomond. A European night against European giants. The fans have just got to be themselves. We’re very fortunate with the fans that we’ve got.”

Meanwhile, Rowntree also confirmed that Munster could look to extend John Ryan’s stay, with the former Wasps prop impressing since returning on a short-term contract.

“He became available and we needed cover in that position and he’s fitted straight in. He’s been good to have around is John, good craic and he’s playing well. He’s durable as well, rarely gets injured and his game input’s huge.

“He’s stealing balls in the breakdown, he’s scrummaging well and he’s adapted to how we’re playing as well, he can play ball as well. So I’m delighted that he’s with us.”

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