Though neither team has thrilled crowds with scintillating brands of rugby, there is arguably no more highly-anticipated fixture this weekend than Munster versus Toulouse. The most successful side in the tournament’s history, Toulouse, travel to Thomond Park on Saturday, where they will take on two-time winners, Munster. It may not have the flair of Toulon versus Leinster, or the dynamism that Clermont versus Leicester surely promises, but the passion and history imbued into this fixture could help it eclipse all other quarter-finals come kickoff on Saturday.
Recent losses to both the Scarlets and Leinster in the RaboDirect Pro12 are far from the ideal build-up to this fixture that Munster Head Coach Rod Penney and his charges would have wanted, but there is something indescribable and unique about Heineken Cup fixtures at Thomond Park. Munster have won all eight games they’ve played at Thomond this season, including their three home Heineken Cup group stage games, and you can be guaranteed of a committed and competitive performance there from Munster, regardless of the XV named, or the stature of the opposition.
Set-piece domination has been the formula by which Munster have so excelled in Europe, and it’s something they will need to replicate on Saturday if they want to see off the challenge of their French visitors. Toulouse losing Census Johnston to a neck injury is a big fillip for Munster, who would have been confident about having the upper hand at the lineout, but could also now have the edge at scrum time too.
The woes of travelling French teams have been well-documented, and with Toulouse having lost their last three away games in the Top 14, the timing couldn’t be worse for their trip to Limerick. Their last away win came in Feburary, when they stuttered to a 16-6 victory over the struggling Biarritz, and confidence could well be an issue for them heading into this game.
Key for Toulouse will be to play with an intensity and speed that Munster struggle to live with, and with dynamic players such as Yoann Maestri, Maxime Médard and Gaël Fickou all rested against Toulon last week, there is no doubt they will raring to go when they take to the Thomond Park pitch on Saturday. Late fitness tests beckon for Yannick Nyanga, Luke McAlister and Louis Picamoles, and although the loss of any of the three would deal a hammer blow to Toulouse’s chances, the French side do have able deputies in the monstrous Gillian Galan and mercurial Lionel Beauxis.
Head-to-head: Peter O’Mahony vs Yannick Nyanga (both subject to late fitness tests)
Arguably the two standout blindside flankers of the Six Nations, O’Mahony and Nyanga will, fitness permitting, face off against each other on Saturday. Both players are coming off injuries, with O’Mahony missing from Munster’s loss to Leinster last week with a hamstring injury, whilst Nyanga made his return from the injury which curtailed his Six Nations campaign last week against Toulon, but should play vital roles in determining which teams emerges victorious on Saturday.
The game is going to be a close one, and one that could be well decided by a hard-working, niggly blindside flanker, who has that determination to make one more tackle, or the legs to take another short carry up the middle for a vital yard or two. It’s hard to separate the two players in terms of technical or physical ability, or even in their considerable mental strength, and whomever of the pair is the more match fit after their recent injuries will likely earn the upper hand, particularly in the second half.
Despite both teams’ gloried pasts in this competition, Saturday’s game will actually mark the first time Toulouse have played at Thomond Park. It’s hard to say whether this means they will approach the game with fearlessness, having never experienced a stadium full of the Munster faithful in full-voice, or whether they could be overawed by the environment, but either way, it is a factor which could prove decisive. On paper it’s hard not to back Toulouse, but with the Thomond Park factor, key injuries to Guy Noves’ side and French teams’ disinclination to travel all worked in, I’d have to say Munster by three.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images