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Munster and Toulouse both looking to move past weight of European history

The high-flying French side have genuine ambitions of winning a fifth Champions Cup title.

CJ Stander captains Munster today in the absence of Peter O'Mahony.
CJ Stander captains Munster today in the absence of Peter O'Mahony.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHEN THIS CHAMPIONS Cup round of 16 pairing was first revealed one of the words more readily bandied about was ‘history’. Munster and Toulouse, who meet at Thomond Park this afternoon [KO 3pm, BT Sport], are drenched in it.

In previous lifetimes, both clubs have been the team to beat in this tournament.

Munster’s beloved band of brothers were what every other club dreamed of being when they collected their two European Cup titles back in the 2000s.

Toulouse’s success has been more spread out, recording the first of their four wins in 1996 and their most recent in 2010. No team has won more European Cups, but four different teams have shared the trophy over the last 10 years as Toulouse slipped back into the chasing pack.

History. It weighs heavy, and to a certain degree both of these teams are trying to escape theirs, tired of looking back to the glory days of old rather than being able to point to the achievements of the here and now.

Toulouse are making a decent fist of it after a tumultuous decade. Having jumped around the Top14 table from season to season they finally put some consistency in their performances and won the league again in 2019.

On the back of years of steady progress, European glory is a tangible target once more.

They’ve invested smartly in their squad but Ugo Mola has also dipped into the Toulouse Academy, with his exciting team blending open, attacking rugby with a hardened backbone.

They currently lead Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle by three points in the Top14 table and look to have the capacity to genuinely challenge for a record fifth Champions Cup. 

They come into this game with some players missing through injury, and others unavailable due to Covid regulations, but the team is still sprinkled with an enviable amount of talent. Behind a pack containing powerful players like Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina and Cyril Baille sits a backline including game-breaking talents such as Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Cheslin Kolbe and Pita Ahki. 

cheslin-kolbe-during-the-warm-up Cheslin Kolbe starts on the wing for Toulouse. Source: Rogan Thomson/INPHO

Players of that calibre travel to Thomond Park expecting to win. 

Munster’s immediate future does not carry the same air of optimism. After a very promising Pro14 campaign, the province crumbled when it mattered most in last weekend’s final.

A chance to end a 10-year trophy drought ended with supporters and the media turning back to the same discussions about inferiority complexes and psychological scars while Johann van Graan essentially shrugged his shoulders, pointed at Leinster and said ‘Sure what can you do?’

It’s a big ask to turn that around and beat Toulouse a week later, and defeat today would leave Van Graan and his coaching team staring at a very bleak picture. A one-sided Pro14 final defeat followed by a home loss in the last 16 of Europe translates as a season’s work ripped apart in the space of one week. 

That’s a difficult scenario for Van Graan to shine a positive light on.

Can they pick up the pieces and win today? Yes, and it goes back to that word, ‘history’. Munster have shown time and time again in this competition that they have a remarkable ability to defy the odds, with December’s win over Clermont evidence that this squad still possesses that inexplicable Munster gene.

Munster are unbeaten in 16 home games in the Champions Cup. They’ve won four of the six meetings between these teams in this competition, including each of the last three. Their last encounter in 2017, a 41-16 win in Limerick, was one of the great Thomond Park days of recent memory.

andrew-conway-celebrates-his-try-with-simon-zebo Andrew Conway celebrates his try against Toulouse in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ten of that Munster 23 are involved today, while an overhauled Toulouse show just six survivors.

If the home side are to make this another memorable occasion, they need to be far more ambitious than they were seven days ago. 

Van Graan isn’t one to throw out many shocks with team selections, and has kept faith with the same backline which failed to ignite against Leinster.

Munster’s forwards will have to work hard to win the battle up front against a monstrous Toulouse pack, but if they can get their team a foothold in the game, the backs have to make it count. 

They need to see the assured, decisive Conor Murray we saw against England, not the passive and predictable one who turned up to the RDS. Joey Carbery must have a greater influence and Munster will need to get their back three on the ball. 

Players will have to take the initiative rather than wait for something to happen and allow the game pass them by. Toulouse have too many brilliant attackers to invite them into the game. The bench will also need to keep the tempo up when introduced to see the game out. 

Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer start in the front row while Peter O’Mahony’s leg injury sees Jack O’Donoghue come into the back row, as CJ Stander captains the side on what he’ll hope isn’t his last Champions Cup appearance. 

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Nobody expects Munster to win the Champions Cup this season, and following last weekend’s limp display, they’ve probably lost a few believers heading into today’s game too.

Written off, backs to the wall, and heading out to play one of European rugby’s true heavyweights.

Munster squads used to live for occasions like this. This one still has a chance to write their own history.

Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander (captain).

Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, James Cronin, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Fineen Wycherley, Craig Casey, JJ Hanrahan, Chris Cloete.

Toulouse: Maxime Médard; Cheslin Kolbe, Zack Holmes, Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand (captain), Charlie Faumuina; Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold; Francois Cros, Selevasio Tolofua, Jerome Kaino.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Clément Castets, Dorian Aldegheri, Joe Tekori, Thibaud Flament, Alban Placines, Baptiste Germain, Dimitri Delibes.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey look back on the Pro14 final and ahead to the provinces’ European knockout games.

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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