Everything may be rosy at Toulon following a 49-0 win over Clermont, but as they prepare to storm Thomond Park tomorrow, All Black Malakai Fekitoa has warned his superstar team-mates to expect a different challenge altogether from Munster.
The 25-year-old centre, who put his 20-cap Test career on hold to join Toulon last November, faces a Champions Cup debut in Limerick tomorrow afternoon and, though he has noticed an increase in commitment levels from his new teammates in recent weeks, Fekitoa is guarding against complacency in his squad after such a thumping victory in the Top14 last Sunday, a game in which he scored two tries.
“I have just got here, obviously, but over the last couple of weeks it has been a lot better at training. The team are working hard, compared to when I first arrived, everyone is having fun and enjoying themselves. I think that is a good sign, but you never know, until we meet a better team, the likes of Munster have been playing really well and winning too,” said Fekitoa.
“I guess it’s easier when everything’s going well. It starts from the forwards and set-piece, doing everything well, and leads to scoring tries and all sorts.
“Last weekend, we’ve been working a lot about the little things and doing our job well. It starts from the forwards and I think it showed last weekend that everything we planned and worked for, it worked, but I guess it will be a different beast this weekend. I think Munster will be a lot better defensively and in offence, as well. They’re very smart, they have some experienced players and their nine and 10 are very smart. They have great boots and clear vision and it’s tough when teams have that. I think it will be tough for us.”
Fekitoa has crossed paths with Munster’s number nine, Conor Murray, on some memorable occasions. Last summer was only a brief encounter, the New Zealander’s involvement in the British & Irish Lions tour to his country limited to a 66th-minute appearance in the series-levelling drawn third Test. Murray departed the scene a couple of minutes later, but the Kiwi also came off the bench in Chicago, as Murray helped engineer Ireland’s historic first win over the All Blacks in November 2016, before Fekitoa avenged that loss with two tries in the rematch a fortnight later at the Aviva, a game that also saw him yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on Simon Zebo.
In short, he has seen enough of the Munster scrum-half to understand his importance to the teams he graces.
“It will be tough for us against him, because he is one of the best there is in the world, along with the likes of Aaron Smith. Obviously, he has played against the All Blacks many times and he has always performed. To have him, he is a huge positive for them. He is a leader, too, and it can be hard when you have all the players, but you don’t have people who can lead a team, but you don’t have someone to lead and be the architect around the field. Conor does that for them. He is a good addition.”
Munster supporters are likely to have clearer memories than the player himself of Fekitoa’s challenge on Zebo during the All Blacks’ 21-9 win at the Aviva in November 2016, when the New Zealand centre halted a promising Ireland attack with a tackle around ball-carrier Zebo’s neck delivered with a swinging arm. It resulted in a yellow card from ref Jaco Peyper, but could easily have been a red. He would receive a one-week ban, but Fekitoa has a surprisingly foggy memory of the incident compared to that of his scoring at the other end.
“That’s the past now. It’s been two years now. I don’t really remember, I guess I got suspended for a few weeks. Nah.
“Dublin was a great occasion. After losing in Chicago. We got there and we were on the edge, it was a massive game. It made it easier for me and I was lucky to be at the right end of the field to score.
“This weekend, it will be the same. A big game and everyone will be behind Munster and they will play well. It’s going to be tough. Whoever is going to prepare well this week is going to take out the win. Hopefully, it will be us but we will wait and see.”
Fekitoa is aware of the stat that 77% of home teams have won their European quarter-finals, but believes Toulon must ignore the numbers if they are to become just the second side to win a knockout game at Thomond Park, following Ulster’s victory at the same stage in April 2012.
“I did see that when I first came and the round-robin was still going. I heard this talk about getting a home quarter-final and I heard when those numbers came up. I guess, what we’ve been talking about, not to let it play a part. It is another game. We prepare well this week, go there and execute our plan, do well and, if we come out with a win, it is on to the next job. Looking at the numbers, it is going to be tough. We just have to get there and be mentally prepared for what’s coming.”
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