ANY team with the capacity to drop the quality of Yannick Nyanga and replace him with one of the best number sevens in the world in Thierry Dusatoir has to be something very special.
That point wasn’t lost last night on Munster coach Declan Kidney and his players as they focused on this evening’s Heineken Cup final against Toulouse at the Millennium Stadium. Not alone is there no place for Nyanga but he is joined on the subs bench by pure quality in the like of Florian Fritz, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Romain Millo-Chlusky and Valentin Courrent, all French internationals, and Alberto Vernet Basualdo, who has been capped by Argentina.
It also goes without saying that the first XV announced by coach Guy Noves is teeming with the game’s finest and is full of confidence having coming through a really testing few weeks qualifying for the semi-finals of the French Championship.
Kidney, for his part, is starting with the same side that accounted for Saracens in the semi-final. He keeps faith with Tomás O’Leary at scrum-half, clearly believing he is the man to cope with the threat posed by Byron Kelleher. The former All-Black weighs in at only an ounce under 15 stone and likes nothing better than to use his bulk to take on the opposition. Should Toulouse win the battle up front, he could well be a match winner but if they’re pushed on to the back foot, his often brittle temperament could be crucially exposed.
Just as Munster must step up appreciably on their recent form, most notably in exceptionally dodgy Magners League displays against Llanelli and Glasgow, Toulouse realise that they might have been in serious trouble in the semi-final had the opposition been more potent than London Irish.
They like to think that in speedster Cedric Heymans they have a world-class full-back but he’s a wing by nature and his defensive limitations were exposed by Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau, both of whom ran around him for tries in that game. The once great Yannick Jauzion didn’t fare a whole lot better in the tackling stakes that day and it can be taken as read that the fired up Munster three-quarter line will seek to take advantage of any similar shortcomings on this occasion.
It’s with respect for Toulouse but without a sign of trepidation that Paul O’Connell and his players go into their fourth European decider. In the sense that they never seem to get anything easy, one can understand why they talk, however quietly, about this being just another game. It’s not that they don’t rate the French, but Declan Kidney had a nice way of putting it last night.
“Toulouse are the ultimate challenge and right now I could think of other teams I’d like to play,” he asserted. “But it’s been like that for this team since the draw was made ten months ago. It’s been tough and we have to roll up the sleeves and go to work again. Toulouse are everything that everybody wants to be. They have a lot of resources backing them up. We’re very proud of the fact that by and large we are an indigenous team and we will play for one another.”
It could be that Munster will be the hungrier side but it would still be silly to assume that just because Toulouse have captured the title on a record three occasions that they don’t covet the trophy any longer. And Pelous was quick to stress yesterday just where their priorities lie.
“Toulouse have got a rather special relationship with the Heineken Cup,” he insisted. “For us, every single match is a big event and that makes us enjoy it more and makes us want to come back. It is the main objective of our club and helps maintain our focus and it’s not difficult to keep desire.”
IT WILL be recalled how Biarritz, admittedly in controversial fashion, grabbed an early converted try in the 2006 final and how Saracens also struck within five minutes of the semi-final kick-off three weeks ago in Coventry. The last thing they need against a side of Toulouse’s speed and strength is to have to play catch-up almost from the kick-off.
“I’m sure both sides will want to get possession and field position early on,” said Kidney. “Sometimes that can go on the bounce of a ball or the toss of a coin, who kicks off, who fields the ball properly. I think that’s the good thing about rugby, there’s nothing pre-ordained, there’s nothing to suggest it will bounce any particular way. You just have to be able to adapt on the day. We did adapt well in 2006. We had to. The boys knuckled down and we had a purple patch just before half time.”
The task facing Munster is a mighty one but something you feel they can well cope with. The arrival of a player of the stature of Doug Howlett adds even more experience and self belief to the side and inside him he has a couple of outstanding centres in Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki. Ronan O’Gara’s unparalleled class as a tactician and playmaker makes him another hugely influential figure at number ten.
The key question, though, is whether these players will receive the ball in sufficient space and time to make their talents pay. That’s where Paul O’Connell and his forwards come into the equation. The skipper has been gradually playing into the kind of form that made him arguably the best second-row in the business three years ago but he is just one of a vastly experienced and in-form forwards that will revel in this stadium’s unique atmosphere.
The question marks are in the front-row where, as always, Marcus Horan and John Hayes will have their scrummaging qualities tested by the South African Daan Human and Italian Salvatore Perugini. If they hold their own, you’d have no fears for any other area of the Munster pack. This team is ready to roll and they have what it takes to win and I expect them to do just that.
Either way, though, it will be edge of the seat stuff from the first blow of Nigel Owens’s whistle right up to the very end.
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