Coughlan: Munster must start with the small battles

A chip on the shoulder and the feeling of being written off.

Coughlan: Munster must start with the small battles

It brought out the best in James Coughlan for the big European games at Thomond Park when the big-money Heineken Cup hot-shots arrived in Limerick with a swagger and left with their tails between their legs.

And the former Munster hero believes the same mindset will be driving on the current team as they prepare to face Toulon in today’s Champions Cup quarter-final.

Coughlan, 37, played 139 times in the Munster back row between 2006 and 2014, his last European outing in red coming against Toulon in Marseille in the 2014 semi-final.

He left that summer to join Pau and having retired as a player last May after three seasons, two of them in the Top14, he is enjoying life as an academy coach with the club.

Watching Toulon last Sunday as they tuned up for injury-hit Munster with a 49-0 Top14 hammering of Clermont filled the Corkman with trepidation for his home province but his time at Munster taught him that this is a familiar scenario.

They have been written off before as the big guns arrive at Thomond Park with a spring in their step.

“That’s exactly what Munster will be looking for. As a player you want to be written off. When you’re written off, what have you got to lose? Nothing,” Coughlan told the Irish Examiner.

“They will give everything physically, they’ll be well prepared and ready to go and ready to attack Toulon and then you never know.

“We always loved being written off because it felt like nobody respected us and when nobody respected us it gave us that chip on our shoulders. There will definitely be a ‘we’ll show them’ mindset, that’s the mentality we always took into it and I don’t think it will be any different this week.”

Coughlan is unsure whether Toulon’s demolition of Clermont was a true indication of the quality of Fabien Galthie’s star-studded side but conceded the evidence was pretty compelling.

“Are they that good? I don’t know. Clermont were possibly thinking a week ahead (to tomorrow’s quarter against Racing). These can be seen as freak results but then again you look at that Toulon team and what they did. They won on merit and ran away with it and were so much better than Clermont.

“I’d say it was a frightening review in Munster this week. You’re asking yourself, ‘where are we going to attack them?’ I played against Toulon all three times with Munster and funnily enough my last game as a professional (for Pau last season) was against them in Toulon and every time it was about winning the small battles.

“It will be the same this weekend. The back-row contest is a major one. There’s going to be a massive test at the lineout as well. And then you’re looking at the scrum, a lot of Toulon’s game is based around winning their scrums and lineouts and having the quality they have in the backline to go and tear up fellas on the back of that. They’re very good, they really are.”

Home advantage is a major asset and Coughlan believes Munster must take advantage and get on the front foot from the first whistle.

“They have to get Toulon to chase the game and hope that they don’t but you’re looking for weaknesses and it’s hard to see one. It’s very difficult to see where Munster can target this Toulon team.

“If they get in front they have a chance. You know, keep the scoreboard ticking over — three, six, nine; five, eight, 11. If they can get two scores ahead then we will see if Toulon want to go chasing the game but they’re seasoned pros, the likes of Chris Ashton has been to Thomond Park before and not been washed away.

“They will try and give a sense of what it’s like to play in Munster to the others but it’s one thing knowing what they’re getting into, it’s only when you experience it for yourself that you truly grasp it and that will stand to Munster.

“But it will come down to the small battles, the breakdown and how Munster cope because Toulon will contest everything, no matter which position you’re in.

“Carriers are going to need plenty of support because if they get too far away from their team-mates they’re going to get turned over.

“If the lineout and scrum go well for either side, the game-changers in the respective backlines are going to have to step up. And sometimes you’ve just got to play your best game and hope the other side don’t.”

There will be concerns in the Toulon camp also and Coughlan believes the visitors will focus their efforts on stopping Conor Murray dictating the game for Munster from scrum-half.

“They’re going to put a lot of pressure on Murray, slowing down ball so he will have no choice but to kick it back to them which brings us back to the importance of the breakdown.

“The high-ball, too, will be a concern because they will expect Munster to try and isolate their wingers through Conor’s kicking, putting up those massive box kicks and getting Zebo, Conway and Wootton into aerial contests or in behind them because if you keep letting them come at you it will be difficult.

“It’s very easy to say it but it’s a lot more difficult to actually do it.”

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