In the beginning — and specifically after Munster were thrashed 60-19 by Toulouse back in 1997 — we feared that the Irish sides were a little out of their depth. Ulster changed all that when the won the European Cup in 1999 accounting for three French sides (Toulouse, Stade Francais and Colomiers) in knockout stages. However, all of those wins were secured at Ravenhill or Lansdowne Road. Winning in France was proving more problematic until Munster’s European journey began in earnest with that incredible win over Toulouse in that captivating semi-final in Bordeaux back in 2000.
That win was special because of what happened back in Toulouse three years earlier. It was memorable because the French aristocrats played a brand of running rugby that we in this country could only dream about at the time and with so much talent on board, Guy Noves’ men were not only the standard bearers but also the most attractive team to watch.
I loved the way they constantly kept the ball alive, playing it out of the tackle with backs and forwards interacting with ease. I admired the fact that, despite their ability to run, they were no soft touch in the set piece either and with an all French front row in Franck Tournaire, Yannick Bru and Christian Califano, they knew a thing or two about the importance of scrum dominance also. The fact that this trio were on board from the start when Munster won in Bordeaux made it an even bigger achievement in my view.
I also loved the fact that despite their manic desire for domestic success, Toulouse had a broader vision than many of their French counterparts at the time and realised from an early stage that success in Europe and the financial benefits that accrued, had the capacity to catapult an already great club onto greater things. By reaching the knockout stage in eight of the first 10 years of the competition, Noves used their significant European prize money to improve their facilities off the field. That proved hugely beneficial in attracting key overseas signings to augment a wealth of home-grown talent, making them practically unbeatable. In the mid-2000s, their back line was superior to most international outfits with Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz impregnable in midfield supported by an electric back three of Vincent Clerc, Clement Poitrenaud and Cedric Heymans. The fact that all bar Heymans are still at the club may be an indicator as to why they have struggled to hit the same heights in Europe in recent times and have been surpassed by Clermont Auvergne.
Toulouse’s biggest problem has been at out-half despite the fact that Freddie Michalak, Lionel Beauxis, David Skrela, Jean Baptiste Elissalde, Luke McAlister and Jean Marc Doussain, internationals all, have featured there at one stage or another over the course of the last few seasons.
Indeed, in terms of resources, attacking flair, power up front and quality of the rugby spectacle, Clermont Auvergne have usurped them and are now a far more dangerous and entertaining side to watch.
I was very disappointed by the manner in which Toulouse were beaten by the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium in round four of this season’s tournament. Their attacking threat was non-existent as they relied on the power of their gigantic forward unit to suffocate their hosts. To their credit the Ospreys beat Toulouse 17-6 playing the brand of rugby reminiscent of what attracted me to the French outfit in the first place.
In the end it was appropriate they were beaten by a side committed to keeping the ball alive with a try from flying Ospreys winger Eli Walker that would have done justice to anything produced by the likes of Toulouse at the height of their powers.
When it comes to attacking rugby, Clermont are now the ones with all the aces behind the scrum. It was no coincidence that their five tries in the quarter-final win over Montpellier a few weeks ago were registered by five different outside backs in centres Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana, along with the electric back three of Sitiveni Sivivatu, Napolioni Nalaga and Lee Byrne. That represents a frightening array of firepower given that the likes of Julien Malzieu, Benson Stanley and Regan King are held in reserve.
Clermont have taken the Heineken Cup by storm this season, finally addressing issues on the road that saw them fail to advance beyond the pool stages in three separate seasons against Irish opposition alone since 2008. They have addressed those demons this season with some scintillating rugby, registering eleven tries in their three away pool games. Some of those five pointers were mesmeric, especially against Exeter Chiefs where many felt they might struggle in the hostile environment that accompanies games at Sandy Park.
In their debut season in the tournament, Exeter rose to the challenge against holders Leinster at the RDS, losing by just three points in a game they could have drawn. By way of contrast, when they retreated to their home dressing room, on the receiving end of a 46-12 thumping against Clermont, Exeter began to realise what this Heineken Cup is all about.
Just like the Toulouse side I grew to admire so much over a decade ago, the thing that makes this Clermont side so difficult to deal with is the balance they bring to their game. Ferociously strong up front but with a back line capable of ripping you apart if given the space and opportunity to do so, they have special individuals capable of producing brilliant things. Chief amongst those are Sivivatu, Fofana and Parra.
To beat them Munster must somehow find a way to minimise their impact on the contest.