Munster have been warned - Toulouse are on a mission to return to their oft-claimed status as Europe’s top dogs following last season’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Leinster, says centre Pita Ahki.
The five-time European champions suffered a chastening 40-17 defeat to Leo Cullen’s team at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium last May, their title defence ending at the last-four stage in the same venue they had squeaked past quarter-final opponents Munster on penalty kicks seven days earlier.
Yet while Munster will welcome their old rivals back to Ireland this Sunday for their opening pool game at Thomond Park with vengeance of their own in mind after exiting on a post-extra-time shootout following a 24-24 draw, Toulouse have some unfinished business of their own to complete and plenty of motivation to get it done, the former Connacht centre said.
"When we lost last season in the semis, it hurt,” Ahki said. “Leinster is Leinster, they're a big European side, have a lot of internationals, and they know how to play finals footy. Toulouse take this competition seriously, the management take it seriously, and we want to put our best foot forward."
While Toulouse will have a place in next May’s final back at the Aviva in their sights, Ahki said his team-mates were under no illusions about the size of the task facing them first up at Thomond Park. Sunday will be the current French league leaders’ fourth visit to Limerick in the past eight years, the previous three having been knockout games, Munster winning the first two – quarter finals in 2014 and 2017 – convincingly before Toulouse took the 2021 round of 16 contest in a 33-40 classic behind closed doors.
Ahki (30), started both the 2021 and 2022 clashes on Irish soil following his 2018 move from Connacht and the former New Zealand Sevens player is well aware of the part a passionate Munster crowd can play in stoking the fires in their heroes’ bellies.
“I don’t think I will need to (speak to the Toulouse players), they already know what Munster will bring. Munster will want to get one up on us after last season. I've played (them) three times now and every game is hard, as you saw last season in the quarters when it went down to the wire, down to penalty kicks. I think it will be a bit of the same."
Last season’s epic clash in Dublin left a lasting impression on Ahki, as have his previous visits to Thomond Park.
"It was a bit weird because I had played there before with Connacht and I remember the crowd was amazing. But the game in Dublin, I didn't expect that many people to turn up ....it was a sea of red, it was amazing.
“My wife was in the stands for both the quarter-final and semi-final (versus Leinster) and she said that the atmosphere in the quarter-final was a lot more energetic with the songs and stuff like that. I definitely could feel what the Munster team could feel.
"In Limerick, it will be a different beast heading there with a full crowd behind them because Munster in Munster is tough.