Munster primed for Biarritz blitz

BACK in the early spring of 2001, Brian McGoey, a keen member of the Red Army and proprietor of a Limerick restaurant, promised to provide any member of the Munster team that scored three tries in a Heineken Cup tie with a lifetime supply of pizzas.

Anthony Foley thought this was too good a chance to miss and duly romped over for a hat-trick in the 38-29 quarter-final defeat of Biarritz Olympique at Thomond Park. McGoey was as good as his word and the victory remains one of the more memorable occasions in Munster’s march to the top of the European ladder, even then, though, it obviously pales when compared with the final win over Biarritz in 2006 at the Millennium Stadium.

However, Foley also appreciates Munster have also had their difficult times against Biarritz and he was captain of the side that went down 19-10 when the sides last met at the quarter-final in the Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian in 2005. He is now the technical advisor with the Irish province and still hasn’t quite shaken off the memory of that defeat.

“It was one of those occasions where you have prepared well, have such high hopes and done everything you feel necessary and then on the day you simply do not perform for 40 minutes and find yourself having to play catch-up”, he recalls.

“I know it sounds clichéd, but it really was a game of two halves. Biarritz got off to a decent start and put us on the back foot and, although David Wallace got a try to bring us back into the game, we simply ran out of steam.”

Munster’s trip across the border into Spain was Biarritz’s first tournament match at the ground and on Sunday it will be Heineken Cup match No 5 at the home of Real Sociedad for Jerome Thion’s team.

“I remember the atmosphere being absolutely electric,” said Foley, whose 86 Heineken Cup appearances were a long standing tournament record before some of his former Munster team-mates moved ahead of him. “It was helped by the fact it was a very warm day and people were out to enjoy themselves, but the colour and noise can get both sides going and feeding off it. It is going to be another massive occasion, we know we will have our usual fantastic support and that they will be seen and heard as well.

“However, the stats show how hard it is to win on the road in the Heineken Cup and we are under no illusions. Biarritz have a massive set piece game, both scrum and line-out, and it is the intensity and huge physicality they bring to the game that we need to be aware of, though not afraid of, while they also have the backs to direct them expertly around the pitch.

“It all revolves around their set piece so attack that and you have a chance. So far we have only looked at three or four of their games but with players like Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy, to mention but two, you understand the qualities they have”.

You might have been thinking Biarritz regard Sunday’s game as the ideal opportunity to avenge their defeat in the 2006 final, but that is far from the case as far as their captain and French second-row Jerome Thion is concerned.

“There is no way we see the semi-final as a revenge game for the 2006 final”, he insisted. “Circumstances are different, players have changed and both teams have evolved since then. We will approach the game as we would do for any high ranking competition semi-final.”

As they are now out of the running for the French championship, the Biarritz season is all about the H-Cup, as they call it, and so far everything has gone swimmingly for them.

“First of all, we were really happy to qualify for the quarters and then we benefited from a favourable draw that allowed us to play at Estadio Anoeta”, said Thion.

“We knew if we won that game against the Ospreys we would play again in San Sebastian so we were focused on that objective. It is true that we didn’t have a good season in the Top 14 and we have had a lot of injuries but each time we managed to regain our strengths.

“Being out of the French championship also means we have to hope that a French club is crowned European champion next month if we want to compete in this tournament next season and it is clear we will now throw everything we have at the Heineken Cup semi-final.

“Munster’s give their all for European rugby and their main goal is to win the Heineken Cup. Our encounters are always huge battles involving a very intense and physical contest. They are used to these major showpiece occasions and have been crowned European champions twice, so we are certainly up against one of the top European squads.”

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