FABIEN Pelous, the veteran Toulouse captain, has a logical answer to those who believe Munster’s 50,000-strong Red Army will overpower the French.
“We have only fifteen Irish in front of us on the pitch — the rest can’t tackle us”.
Perhaps not, but Pelous and his players would be ill advised to believe that the fans won’t play a key role for Munster. Coach Declan Kidney and his captain Paul O’Connell again remarked on how they have often helped them over the line in the past and were hoping for similar assistance on this occasion.
“They’re our 16th man”, countered Kidney. “We need them to row in behind us. The French and English teams come from one background in these competitions. We come from a different type of background. It would be huge for us to win it again, everything it was the last time plus more. It doesn’t get any easier but it’s an absolute privilege to be here. I can’t overstate that. We’ve seen the up side, we’ve seen the down side of it, and we’re just trying to balance the books here now.”
Paul O’Connell also used the 16th man line: “This started eight or nine years ago when the Munster run began and they’ve been behind us ever since. You have to give them something to cheer about, you can’t rely on them solely obviously, and they’ve definitely helped us over the line on a few occasions.”
Unlike the semi-final against Gloucester, Kidney didn’t pull any rabbits out of the hat on this occasion. Tomás O’Leary again edged Peter Stringer for the number nine jersey and the main talking points are in the replacement panel. Tony Buckley has been recalled as prop substitute ahead of Federico Pucciariello and young Keith Earls is preferred to Kieran Lewis.
“Each player brings something to it and Keith has been going very well at training and I felt he deserved his chance”, Kidney explained. “Leaving Anthony Foley out for this game was very hard and equally it was very hard not to start Peter Stringer. As the years go on, the task of selection becomes more and more difficult but they respect me for picking what I believe is the best XV on the day.
“As with Toulouse, there were tight calls throughout. You can start with Denis Hurley or Shaun Payne at full-back, we had any number of centres and wingers and so I wouldn’t say there was any decision that was particularly easy. To pick out one would be disingenuous to any of the other positions and it was quite a difficult team to pick. At the same, the guys we have picked are the ones who have been going well at training.
“Toulouse is just the biggest challenge you can face and if we’re to win it, we’ll have to do it the hard way”, said Kidney. “But if you said to us ten months ago that we’d be in another final, we’d be delighted but we’re under no illusions. Everyone models themselves on Toulouse and that’s the highest compliment you can pay anyone — the structure of the club, the passion they play with, let alone the skill and physicality that they bring to the game. They’re just the measure for every club.”
Even though Toulouse are said to have an annual budget of €17m against Munster’s €5m, the clubs are similar in several ways, chiefly that they genuinely believe they are playing for their district and their people rather than just professional rugby players chasing as much money as they can while they can.
“To be effective as a rugby team, you need to have a great tradition and Munster and Toulouse are both fortunate to have that”, said Pelous. “We have respected this idea of tradition and used that to build the club in the way we have recruited player and in the way we operate within the community so it’s a cycle of success. And I think it’s the same with Munster.”
The rival captains made light of ERC’s decision to close the Millennium Stadium roof.
“It’s a small detail of the game but as it’s something I don’t get to do very often, I’m looking forward to it”, commented Pelous.
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