By Simon Lewis
Forget the doom and gloom that followed Munster into this Heineken Cup quarter-final with four-time champions Toulouse like a dark shadow.
On a day when Munster had to shine, they duly delivered, sending a full house at Thomond Park into raptures with a six-try romp that made the French giants look like schoolboy rookies and booked the Irish province a second consecutive semi-final berth under head coach Rob Penney.
After a couple of poor performances in the league, including a defeat to arch rivals Leinster at the Aviva Stadium seven days previously, the prospect of putting almost a half-century of points on the aristocrats of European rugby seemed the stuff of dreams.
We should have known better than to doubt. A year ago, Penney's squad had gone into their quarter-final at Harlequins at an equally low ebb and turned in their performance of the season at The Stoop to banish fears of an early end to the season.
And so it was in Limerick, 12 months on, with Penney and captain Peter O'Mahony pressing home the message all week that from one to 23, each Munster player needed to play their best game of the season if they were to have a hope of overcoming Toulouse.
“They all had to play big today,” Penney said after the victory that sets up an away semi-final against the winners of Sunday's quarter-final between Toulon and Leinster.
“There was just no doubt that if we had any weakness it would be exposed.
“We spoke all week about them having the best game they’ve ever had in the Munster jersey and you could look along one to 15 and the guys that came on, all just so determined to do well for each other.
“The spirit's there and it's going to see this organisation well for a period of time and that's great.”
Penney's words had certainly provoked the right response.
Munster, buoyed before kick-off by the emotional lift of the sell-out 26,200 crowd who had roared them back to the dressing room following their pre-match preparations, came back out with ferocious intent, the Toulouse defensive line stretched as early as the fifth minute after a sequence of 19 phases to give Keith Earls a glimpse of the corner and the opening try, converted by Ian Keatley, to cap a raucous start to the proceedings.
“The crowd support they got before they came down the tunnel (after their pre-match warm-up), the boys came back into the dressing shed and there was a bit of emotion there because they wanted to repay the fantastic support they had and the emotion that the crowd pushed their way,” Penney said.
“They are pretty special and unique experiences for the players and that was why we started so well.”
The loss of O'Mahony after just 18 minutes with a serious-looking shoulder injury, replaced by CJ Stander, did not bode well for Munster and with the wind in their faces and at Toulouse's backs, the rest of the half was a nip and tuck affair.
Fly-halves Keatley and Luke McAlister, switched into the Toulouse line-up 24 hours after Lionel Beauxis had been named in the XV, traded penalty kicks to leave Munster ahead 13-9 at half-time.
Only four points to the good after enjoying 60% possession did not seem adequate against a team that had rallied from 27-5 to earn a draw at Stade Francais two weeks previously, but Munster fans were quickly put at ease as the forwards rumbled into action.
Pressure on Maxime Medard forced a lineout on the Toulouse 22, the resulting lineout producing a wonderful maul that was driven to the five-metre line before Conor Murray darted towards the try line and the excellent Dave Kilcoyne picked and barrelled over, Keatley's conversion opening up a 20-9 lead a minute after the restart.
That advantage was up to 18 points five minutes later as man of the match Stander crashed over for a try, the build-up of which had started on Munster's own five-metre line.
The home side were rampant but Toulouse were too dangerous to be discounted.
Kilcoyne and opposing prop Yohan Montes saw yellow as referee Nigel Owens tired of their scrummaging and the French found fresh impetus.
Keatley missed a penalty and then All Black wing Hosea Gear ran roughshod over the fly-half and full-back Felix Jones to put Toulouse back in the game with a converted try at 27-16.
It might have signalled a collapse but this team has become battle-hardened over this season, ekeing out wins that would have been defeats a year ago and against Toulouse throwing away victory was not an option.
Casey Laulala settled nerves by finishing a wonderful phase of running rugby and even when Joe Tekori bulldozed his way over the line at the other end, with six minutes remaining, it had the hallmarks of a consoloation effort, despite Toulouse moving to within two scores at 35-21.
Rather than rally one more time, Toulouse were beaten and Munster finished the demolition, tries from Simon Zebo and Paul O'Connell completing the rout on a day when everyone in red stood up and fought.
“It's an extremely satisfying win,” Penney said. “It was great to get the win but the performance I thought was terrific.
“It was not a secret how dangerous they are, so great credit to the lads on both sides of the ball.
“You need to be against a side like that...The occasion it was and the manner in which the boys went about their work, not once did they go into their shells or get nervous even when a bit of pressure was coming on them midway through the second half.
“They stuck to the task, stuck to the strategies they'd been given and got the reward out of it in the end.”