Ian Keatley sees the visit of Toulon to Thomond Park not only for the huge challenge it is for Munster but also as a massive opportunity for a young side eager to stake its own place in the province’s rich European heritage.
Both the quality of a Toulon side that ruthlessly dispatched French league rivals Clermont Auvergne 49-0 last Sunday and a Munster injury list that has reduced the backline to its bare bones defy the bookmakers odds which make the Irish side favourites to succeed in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final, however much the Thomond Park factor plays into their thinking.
Keatley, who turns 31 on Sunday, has played in two European semi-finals and two PRO12 finals during his seven seasons at Munster but such is Toulon’s apparent upper hand that the fly-half believes victory this weekend would surpass anything this team has achieved in recent years.
“I think for this current squad, yes. Since I have been here, I have had five different head coaches, and given the amount of players that have come in and come out over the past couple of years, I think it would be such a huge achievement for this squad.
“If we perform against Toulon and come out with a win we have put ourselves in a really good position to go and win silverware.
“You are only two games away from winning silverware, so it is massive. We were talking about it the other day and I am the third oldest in the group, Billy (Holland) is the oldest and Duncan Williams the second oldest.
“Otherwise it is quite a young squad and the only way they are going to get experience is to play in these quarter-finals and hopefully semi-finals. It is going to be massive for the squad and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Added to the tough examination that awaits Munster is the sheer size of the men they are set to face, with head coach Johann van Graan acknowledging that looking to confront Toulon head-on is not an option.
“It’s simple science. If you’re 100kg against 130kg you’re more than likely going to lose out there,” he said.
“We have little ways of being nice and direct and attacking them. But we also might have subtle little changes in point of attack.
“That will be our focus this week. We’re not going to be stupid and think we’re going to out-muscle them.
“That would the wrong way to go about it. We are still going to be physical, we’ll still be direct and we’ll change the point of attack and go for the spaces. But we need to be a little bit smarter.
“I don’t think we’re the biggest, most physical team but we are pretty fit and we’re a smart team of smart individuals and smart rugby players. We need to use those strengths. We’re not going to go out and out-physical a team like Toulon, just like we wouldn’t have out-physicaled Racing.
“We need to be smart, to be a bit cuter in how we shift the ball in attack and how we use our kicking game, how we can make the bigger guys turn. We can use our fitness then.”
Keatley’s first European semi-final came in April 2014 and ended in a 24-16 defeat to Toulon in Marseille as the defending champions from France saw off a brave challenge from Rob Penney’s side at Stade Velodrome.
The fly-half believes the way that game panned out remains instructive for this Saturday.
“It was an unbelievable game. I remember Zeebs made that unbelievable tackle on (Steffon) Armitage in the corner which kept us in it and then we had another chance, I think I had a kick from the halfway off to the right and if I had gotten the kick it would have put us in the lead.
“Rugby is such a funny game with momentum and swings that if you do put yourself slightly ahead of them they have to maybe chase the game a bit more and you might create more chances.
“You need to get the lead in these games. You need to start well and you need to build momentum from the start, you can’t expect to let them run away with it for the first 20 minutes and expect to come back and win it.
“We need to be on the money from the word go on the weekend. We are making sure we are well prepped to hit the ground running on Saturday.”
That Toulon’s galacticos, who that day included Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau, Jonny Wilkinson and this weekend’s sole backline survivor from that day, Mathieu Bastareaud, were kept tryless that day was of little comfort then and will be similarly regarded this weekend if Munster fail to secure victory.
“I think Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled and kicked everything,” Keatley said, referencing the former England star’s 21 points of Toulon’s total of 24.
“Yeah, listen, it is hard. Every game has a different feeling and a different mood and a different feel to it, so like, after seven minutes of the game at the weekend against Scarlets we didn’t think that they wouldn’t score again, but you just feel out the game.
“I remember even the weekend we had a penalty after 10 minutes and we talked about kicking for the posts, me and Billy had a chat.
“We felt we hadn’t had the ball for 10 minutes, so we actually decided to go for the corner and build pressure on them that day and we actually held onto the ball for a few minutes.
“That is what I mean by getting a feel of the game and we will see what happens at the weekend.
“If they scored four tries and we still won, it wouldn’t really matter to us.”
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