Munster must find something extra special

The message from the Munster camp this week in anticipation of today’s Heineken Cup quarter-final may have been delivered in a variety of tones but it all boiled down to the same thing: It will take their best performance of the season to give them any hope of beating Toulouse this afternoon.

Munster must find something extra special

From the measured analysis of head coach Rob Penney to the downbeat assessment of Paul O’Connell, and the optimism of Conor Murray to the bluntness of captain Peter O’Mahony there was a unity of understanding that for all the strides made so far in the current campaign, there is an urgent need to finally put it all together into a complete 80-minute performance today.

For when the Toulouse juggernaut rumbles ominously into a sold-out Thomond Park at 1:30pm, and the man mountains from France come flying at them with power, purpose and poise, Munster must find it in themselves to match the four-time European champions tackle for tackle and stride for stride.

It will require a level of intensity and clarity of purpose from Munster to execute their gameplan and negate Toulouse’s that we have only seen intermittently, for all the perceived success of the campaign to date.

It has come in portions rather than the whole plate Penney is so desperate to serve up before he moves at the end of the season. There was the spirit and strength of character shown in the dying minutes against Perpignan at Stade Aimé Giral in December to eke out a brilliantly executed winning try against the odds. Against Gloucester at Kingsholm a month later there was sustained defensive excellence to knock out pool rivals and qualify for the last eight a week ahead of schedule. And in Limerick in the final round there was the clincial cutting edge required to put Edinburgh to the sword and secure the bonus-point win that clinched a home quarter-final.

It was enough to get Munster to this point but at the start of a mouthwatering weekend of European rugby that pits perhaps the strongest collection of quarter-finalists yet seen in the Heineken Cup’s final season, it will take all of that and more to knock over mighty Toulouse.

The players know that and as O’Mahony said earlier this week, it will not need any rallying cry to ram the point across in the home dressing room. It has to be the best collective performance we have played all year,” the captain said. “It doesn’t matter whether JJ has to have a word with us beforehand, once everyone 1-23 is firing and has their best game in a Munster jersey all year, then we are going to put ourselves in the best position to beat Toulouse on Saturday and we can’t be waiting for someone to stand up and shout to us about it.

“If Toulouse coming to Thomond Park doesn’t get you up for a game you shouldn’t be hanging around with us.”

With words like those it is no wonder Munster supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief at O’Mahony’s availability to play this afternoon having shown no ill effects from his participation in the final squad training session.

The province needs its biggest guns firing against a French power game full of bristling intensity, clinical accuracy and wonderful, ball-handling talent.

They may have stuttered on the road in their league of late, drawing at Stade Francais and losing in Marseille to Toulon last weekend, but the scouting report brought back by assistant coach Simon Mannix after the first of those matches gave Penney plenty of food for thought.

“Simon came back really reinforcing all the things we had seen up until that point, that they are a team on the rise,” Penney said. “Their pre-Christmas performances (including a shock home defeat to Connacht) were probably frustrating for them. They weren’t where they need to be or probably where they see themselves being.

“They’ve grown every week. They’ve played Stade Francais, Racing, Toulon and all three of those clubs are massive clubs in their own right. Every week there has been another layer of intensity, another layer of accuracy and completion of what they are trying to do.

“And that is very dangerous, very dangerous. We are going to have to be as good as we have ever been to compete with them.”

O’Connell’s analysis that Munster have not been anywhere near to the complete package, certainly since Christmas, was based on the disappointment of his return to provincial colours in defeat to Leinster last weekend, a fortnight after he lifted the RBS 6 Nations trophy at Stade de France.

He said lining up Munster’s side to the Toulouse XV there was no way his outfit could be considered favourites. He has a point and a unit by unit comparison, particularly of the respective benches, where Toulouse have quality in reserve of the calibre of Gillian Galan, Yannick Nyanga, Luke McAlister and Jean-Marc Doussain, suggests Munster could be outgunned all over the park.

O’Connell, though, knows more than anyone that there is so much more to this encounter than comparing names on the team sheets.

He knows Toulouse might not be fazed by an electric atmosphere at Thomond Park but he and his team-mates will feel superhuman when take to the field thanks to the passionate support they will receive.

O’Connell is in awe of Toulouse’s physicality but he knows how well conditioned the Munster players are, conditioning that allowed them to rally with clear heads, strong lungs and a never say die spirit after conceding a potentially fatal blow in Perpignan to deliver a famous victory.

And we all know that there is something special inside this Munster squad, a potential just waiting to be fulfilled.

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