The “Sold Out” signs have been up for days at Thomond Park, Ireland’s Six Nations heroes have returned to the fold and the treatment room is as busy as it has been all season. Would it be any other way for Munster in a Champions Cup quarter-final week?
The province has been here before, 16 times to be precise and today’s visit of Toulon to the Limerick citadel marks a competition record 17th trip to the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition.
Big guns have come and gone in that time, climbing off their bus with the swagger of conquering invaders only to be sent packing with the Fields of Athenry ringing in their ears on the lonely road back to Shannon airport.
A history of nine home quarter-finals and just one defeat, to Ulster in 2012, suggests Toulon will sample the same package as predecessors Toulouse, Stade Francais, Perpignan, Biarritz, Ospreys and Northampton but there can surely not have been a club team enter the visiting dressing room with as much quality, top-level experience and physicality as this afternoon’s occupants.
Just a run through the calibre of player left at home on the Mediterranean this weekend is an indication, not just of the deep pockets of Toulon’s owner Mourad Boudjellal but the discerning nature of his purchases.
When the likes of Hugo Bonneval, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Mamuka Gorgodze are deemed surplus to requirements, you know there must be a serious amount of talent travelling north in their stead.
Munster captain Peter O’Mahony perhaps put it best as he assessed the challenge facing his side said this week, having just watched Toulon demolish league rivals Clermont 49-0 at their Stade Mayol home: “Their strengths, it is probably as hard to pick a weakness in them.
“The performance at the weekend, it was quite relentless. Their pack have the ability to beat teams up and their backs have probably even more of an ability to beat teams up.
"Guys like Josua Tuisova, Malakai Fekitoa and Mathieu Bastareaud you are naming household names across the board."
"The go-forward ball that Bastareaud gives them makes them difficult to stop. It is about momentum. They have a lot of momentum givers so they are some of the guys we are going to have to stop at the weekend.”
Doing so without a frontline openside makes the task even more onerous but blindside flanker O’Mahony does not feel a re-jigged back row adds more responsibility to his brief.
“I’m not conscious of that to be honest with you. I am really focused on playing well this week. I am not going to go and try and consciously play like a seven if that is what you are asking. You have got to go and try and play as best you can.
“If you are thinking about doing different things because you are missing x or y then you are going to be off-task. The 22 or 23 who are lucky enough to be picked, you need guys playing the best game of their year on Saturday to have a shot at winning.”
Both Munster captain and head coach Johann van Graan agreed that against such an imposing and powerful side trying to dominate Toulon physically was the wrong tactic.
“You probably cannot go after them head on,” O’Mahony said. “It is not like we have the size to really take them on like that but you have got to be physical. That is not saying you cannot shy away from it. You have got to go hard but be smarter about it.” Van Graan said:
“I think you’ve got to pick your fights. Just in terms of the laws of physics they’re just bigger than us so you need to find ways to outmanoeuvre them in certain areas. Unfortunately this is a collision game, you need to win collisions, you need to win body height and body fight against them. You’ve got use your fitness and move them around.
“All of those things sound very nice but you’ve got to actually do it against world-class opposition.”
Since van Graan succeeded fellow South African Rassie Erasmus as Munster boss in mid-November, European competition has brought the head coach’s emotions closest to the surface.
The pool win over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road in December, completing a home and away double over the English side, appeared to be full of significance for the former Springboks assistant and this week as he looked forward to going up against the mighty Toulonnais, he turned to hearts as much as minds as the means for Munster to get over the line.
Rugby games, he said, “are won in the hearts of men” and as he looked around the Munster team room on Monday morning he saw only warriors.
You get the feeling that this is the scenario van Graan, still only 38, craved when he grabbed this opportunity to be Munster’s head coach.
“You want to be part of something bigger than yourself, you want to be part of huge games. I was part of a World Cup semi-final, it was big, Super Rugby finals, but this is huge.
“Even when the final whistle went on Saturday evening (after the PRO14 defeat of Scarlets) you went ‘okay, this is it’.
“After the Castres game (at home in January) that was more an enjoyable game. Maybe a different type of game with the delayed kick-off and the excitement of getting through to a quarter-final but this is knockout rugby now, this is why you coach and this is why you’re part of rugby, for days like Saturday.”
Beating Toulon is a massive challenge for van Graan and his players. Yet however daunting it may be, when Munster are in this type of mindset, you would dare not back against them.
S Zebo; A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
N Scannell, J Cronin, J Ryan, G Grobler, R Copeland, J Hart, JJ Hanrahan, D Sweetnam.
C Ashton; J Tuisova, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, S Radradra; F Trinh-Duc, E Escande; F Fresia, G Guirado, M Van Der Merwe; J Kruger, D Attwood; R Lakafia, F Isa, D Vermeulen - captain.
A Etrillard, X Chiocci, E Setiano, R Taofifenua, A Belleau, M Fekitoa, A Mathewson, S Manoa Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
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