ONE COULD hardly have imagined in those far off days back in November 1996 that Munster would ever compete on a level playing field with the might of Toulouse.
Watching from the stand as a disconsolate group of Munster players trooped off the pitch. To them the dressing room never looked so inviting.
That was the game when Mick Galwey implored his charges to keep the score under 50 points. Even that proved beyond Munster on a day when they were hammered by 60-19 in the first ever encounter with Toulouse.
In theory Irish rugby was 12 months into a professional game but in reality a yawning chasm existed between the top sides in Ireland and France that was ruthlessly exposed that day.
Twelve years on and perhaps the most telling development in Irish rugby is that Munster now have the ability to look any opposition straight in the eye with the knowledge there is nothing to fear. Perhaps of even more significance, sides like Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and Stade Francais are very much aware that in Munster they face an opponent equal in strength, character and unity. The French are now the ones feeling slightly uncomfortable.
When Munster beat Toulouse in that incredible semi-final in Bordeaux in 2000, one could argue that Guy Noves’ team underestimated the challenge on the day. Three years later in another semi final in Toulouse, the home side’s one-point victory could be attributed to the quality of their bench and the ability to spring international quality players at vital moments.
Now, even on that front, Munster are very much their equal. This is what makes Saturday’s Heineken Cup final such a fascinating contest for anyone with even a semblance of interest in rugby. Munster’s metamorphosis from David to Goliath is but one of the fascinating cameos this magnificent tournament has offered since its inception 13 years ago.
On the eve of what promises to be one of classic finals, Munster stand on the threshold of greatness.
Only five months ago, the prospects of reaching Cardiff looked bleak. When Paul O’Connell was ruled out for the entire pool stage due to a debilitating back injury, Declan Kidney’s men were dealt a severe blow. Yet in Mick O’Driscoll, Munster had the man to rise to the challenge.
In O’Connell’s absence, Ronan O’Gara assumed the mantle of team leader with such distinction that he would captain his country for the first time within a few months of his elevation in Munster.
Yet the challenge of qualifying from a ridiculously difficult pool edged towards the insurmountable in the opening half against Clermont Auvergne last January. The latest powerhouse of French rugby were playing scintillating rugby and had Munster reeling and on the ropes. Behind by 20 points at one stage, it even conjured memories of that awful 1996 day in Toulouse.
When backed into a corner, there are only two ways to react. You lie down and take your punishment or you come out fighting.
If Paul O’Connell ends up lifting the Heineken Cup on Saturday, he will have reason to reflect on that second half performance at the Parc Des Sports Marcel-Michelin when Munster secured an all-important bonus point in the most demanding of circumstances. It saved Munster’s season.
At a time when cool heads were required, Ronan O’Gara gambled and went for broke. On a magnificent playing surface, O’Gara flicked the switch and added width to Munster’s game. With Doug Howlett outside the ever-increasing influence of Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki, he took on the French at their own game. It was the last thing Clermont expected.
While defeat would ultimately prove their lot, the bonus point that accompanied the team on the journey home never felt so good. However on Saturday, the French opposition will neither underestimate the challenge or be surprised by the manner in which Munster can vary their game.
Not surprisingly both sides have struggled to play anywhere near their full potential since securing their final spot almost four weeks ago. Psychologically, regardless of what is said in the dressing room, it is difficult to play at the same level of intensity week in, week out, especially with such a big game on the horizon. That will not be a problem for either side on Saturday.
Toulouse differ from Clermont Auvergne in one vital aspect. They have made the Heineken Cup their priority this season. Not unlike Munster, they have displayed ample character in difficult circumstances, coping with a raft of injuries at vital times this season — none more so than in the semi final against London Irish.
Despite their problems, it was impossible to ignore the quality of their forwards on that occasion. The London Irish line out has been lauded for some time as the most productive in the Guinness Premiership on their own throw and the most destructive on the opposition. Yet on the day, Toulouse were better out of touch. Munster will do well to note that not only do they compete in the air on the opposition throw but their maul has operated with far greater efficiency than Munster’s in recent outings.
In second row Patricio Albacete, Toulouse have one of the top three locks in the world. While he lacks the athleticism of O’Connell in the air, he is a very competent operator out of touch and is in the Martin Johnson mould in terms of making a nuisance of himself at the breakdown. His hands are all over the opposition. O’Connell was back to his imperious best in the second half against Saracens at a time when his team needed him most. He has a vital role to play on Saturday.
While Toulouse will compete favourably with Munster up front, the gap that was always evident in the past between the creative abilities of the respective back lines has now been narrowed to a significant degree.
Munster will not be afraid to attack Toulouse with ball in hand and will have noted the manner in which Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau exposed frailties in their defence at Twickenham. On the evidence of that semi-final, Doug Howlett and Lifeimi Mafi have the ability to prosper from broken play. However, Cedric Heymans and Yannick Jauzion showed an uncharacteristic weakness in the tackle that day — they won’t be as accommodating on this occasion.
Munster’s evolution has continued to such a degree that should Tomas O’Leary hold off the challenge of Peter Stringer, then only two of the back line remain from the side that triumphed over Biarritz two years ago. Munster are a better team now than they were in 2006 but on that occasion an obsession to succeed camouflaged technical weaknesses.
Perhaps of even more significance, in the sanctuary of the dressing room, less than an hour after Anthony Foley lifted the trophy, there was a collective pact that the victory over Biarritz would mark the beginning and not the end.
For this squad to be remembered as one of the greats in Europe that triumph cannot remain a one-off. Almost two years to the day, Munster now have that opportunity of cementing their place in history.
Toulouse, chasing an unprecedented fourth victory, will have other ideas. It will be extremely close.
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