You could decide the game before Nigel Owens’ first whistle.
Of all the sub-plots simmering ahead of a fascinating two days of quality rugby, I’m giddiest about how Toulouse manage the Thomond Park experience. If I could give one message to the Munster people, it’s how important the crowd is going to be tomorrow afternoon.
Toulouse are expecting it to be intimidating, but even for those medalled internationals with 50 caps to their name, they gets sweaty hands at the prospect of playing in Thomond Park on a European occasion, particularly a knock-out occasion. And that’s where we’re at.
A great phrase from the Munster dressing room booklet: they think they know us, but they haven’t a clue.
The other special ingredients in the Thomond cocktail are dusk and sheets of rain. A sprinkle of English arrogance usually helps too. Tomorrow, the 1.30pm kick-off throws a left-field element into the mix, because the first 10 minutes will be fundamental to the outcome. Munster need to have supporters in place 45 minutes before the kick-off — that’s the beginning of what makes these occasions so different.
When the Toulouse boys are warming up doing their box kicking, you need the Munster support hollering at them. It does have a massive impact (on both sets of players) and I worry that with a 1.30 kick-off, that the people could just be settling into their seats at kick-off. That’s not good; if Toulouse get an opportunity to settle into the game, it’s danger for Munster. What is needed here is a Stade Francais job a decade ago when the game at Thomond Park was over after 10 minutes. We went 17-0 up before they knew where they were.
Toulouse’s greatest strength is their quality across the park, coupled with their strength off the bench, which they use very astutely. They genuinely have impact replacements. That’s a little different to the Irish mentality where the best 15 is selected. Attitudes in the coaching sphere are changing though, with players selected for the impact they can deliver over 20 minutes, where they can change a game. Gael Fickou, Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget are bullet proof in some ways — young, confident, supremely talented and unscarred by previous nightmares in Limerick. Perhaps Munster can tap into a small bit of negativity that may exist for the more seasoned pros — the Clercs and Poitrenauds — if things didn’t go their way early on. Depending on your source, Luke McAlister has either no chance or will definitely start for Guy Noves’ side; if he does play, it gives Toulouse equal footing in a 50-50 game. If he doesn’t, expect Doussain to start at 10, maybe Vermaak at nine. Census Johnson looks a certain absentee. Big swing to Munster there.
Rob Penney’s management has its own selection conundrum, especially at centre alongside Casey Laulala. James Downey’s contract is not being renewed, Denis Hurley is transitioning from wing to centre, Ivan Dineen had been going well there too. There’s also the option of Keatley and Hanrahan playing 10-12, though that’s unlikely. A lot of dilemmas there for staff.
If the game was in Toulouse, I’d predict a convincing win for the French aristocrats. That’s how critical the venue is. Of the four quarter-finals, the best chance of an away win is Leinster in Toulon.
I’ve consistently said, when you have momentum in sport, you carry all the aces.
The belief within the Leinster set up is so deep. How did they get a result against Munster last Saturday given the first half an hour? And yet after 60 minutes, there was only one team in it.
It would hardly register on the Richter Scale if Toulon won at the Felix Mayol, but if Leinster can keep the penalty count under ten, they’ll win. I was really impressed again last Saturday with their detail around the ruck. Having 16 Leinster players involved in national training for eight weeks is a huge advantage — you can just see the detail they’ve brought back to Leinster as a result. Matt O’Connor is a good coach too, and you could see that Munster could not get near their ruck ball. Leinster ball was on a plate for Eoin Reddan all night.
THE way to play Leinster with their new defensive system — which has an awful lot of width — is to take them on up the guts. Attack up the middle, north-south all day long. Not just the 12 channel but at ruck time, don’t move the ball immediately because the Leinster players disperse to get width in their defensive line.
So you need to keep playing in a 10-metre radius until they close down, then you can play it to width. I’m sure the Toulon coaching staff is paying particular attention to the width Leinster have in their defence.
The Ravenhill faithful won’t expect to see anything pretty in their quarter-final against Saracens tomorrow, but like Thomond Park, they will have a direct bearing on the game. It’ll be a ‘who cracks first’ type of affair, a lot of kick tennis, a lot of pressure and who wins the ball in the air. Ulster are banking on the big game influence of Ruan Pienaar factor. They should get over the line in a junkyard fight.
There’s huge interest in France in Clermont Auvergne and the 74-game unbeaten run at the Stade Michelin. Vern Cotter leaves at the end of the season and while they were poor against Brive last weekend, they’ve been fine up to now.
However, we’ve discussed a while back their tendency in clutch moments to shrink just a little. Tomorrow is an important quarter-final, but May is the clutch month for Clermont, and has been over many, many seasons. Too often, they’ve failed to pass the test when the chips were down. The demons aren’t there at the moment — they don’t get the yips until May. I wouldn’t even say that about the team in general; it’s more of an issue for Brock James or Mike Delaney or whoever they play at ten.
But their home record is staggering and merits serious respect.
Racing were hockeyed down there this season, but one of my most satisfying Munster days in adversity was down there. After 27 stitches in my ear, I resumed my slot at ten. Respect for Rua Tipoki — he defended the 10 channel like his life depended on it. We sneaked a bonus point that day, qualifying us for the knockouts. It’s easy five years later to downplay that, but when you are experiencing that live, these are the small margins that makes differences.
There is a serious synergy in Clermont between the pitch and the stands, it’s the one ground where the crowd never stop jumping, making it feel like the stadium is shaking. It does wonders for the mood of the players.
Clermont probably have the best phase game in France, that’s where Vern Cotter excels. He has them coached very well, and the outstanding player in France this season has been Fritz Lee, their No 8. He has given them new momentum.
And yet, and yet. Leicester are not the sort of outfit that goes 10 or 15 points down and throws in the towel. And as we all know, if you’re within 10 points of Clermont after 60 minutes, it’s possible you can win the game. Everyone think Richard Cockerill is an out and out Tiger, and he is in many respects, but he still had the smarts to go off and see what’s out there by joining Clermont. There was talk of him potentially replacing Cotter. Leicester won’t go quietly. But there will be one French side in the semis, and it’s likely to be Clermont.