If you’re looking for an iconic clash this weekend, then you could do far worse than to cast your eye over the channel to the Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday afternoon. There, in probably perfect conditions in the south of France, there’s a clash between the old and the new; the European Cup institution that is Munster, and the club whose name has only just begun to creep into the history books. Toulon v Munster is not just shaping up to be an epic rugby match – it’s shaping up to be a barometer of power in the European club game.
The last time I previewed Toulon was in the Heineken Cup quarter final, where I pointed out that their squad is essentially the dream team you could create on EA Sports’ Rugby 08 on the Playstation 2. That remains true, but any lingering questions that arose as a result of this – their age and their ability to play at pace for example – were emphatically answered at Stade Felix Mayol in the quarter finals, as they dispatched another Irish giant, Leinster, with surprising ease.
The worry for any side that plays Toulon is that, even when one man walks off injured, there is another world-class player with 50-odd caps trotting on to take their place. Take the back-row, for example, where Juan Smith, Chris Masoe, Steffon Armitage, Danie Roussouw, Joe Van Niekerk and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe all vie for three spots. And it’s this which has cushioned the blow of the loss of English legend Johnny Wilkinson, who hobbled off in that victory over Leinster – he’s been replaced by Freddie Michalak, and the notoriously flaky Frenchman has found the form which has seen him become renowned as one of the most dangerous – and inconsistent – fly halves in world rugby, tearing up Perpignan last weekend in a superb display that helped Toulon to consecutive away wins for the first time since 2012.
Of course, Michelak has shared playmaker duties with Australian veteran Matt Giteau, but between them they’ve conjured up Toulon’s best spell of attacking rugby all year. But that won’t be enough to keep the World Cup winner out of the side now he’s back from injury – after all, this is the big occasion. This is what Wilkinson is built for. Toulon are hitting form at exactly the right time, and it is going to take something very special to stop their power game from dominating proceedings in front of an expectant crowd.
Of course, ‘something special’ is, er…, something of a Munster speciality. Year upon year, the province make the knock-out stages and launch a serious challenge for the title, even when critics would have pointed out that certain years were not ‘vintage’ Munster teams. And by ‘vintage’, the mind harks back to the golden era of Ronan O’Gara, Alan Quinlan, Marcus Horan, Peter Stringer and Paul O’Connell. Of course, big POC is still knocking about, but what should worry other sides is that a new dynasty is clearly emerging.
Captain Peter O’Mahony has taken over the mantle of inspirational leader from O’Connell as part of the transition, but the big flanker is missing this weekend so the likes of BJ Botha and the hard-working Tommy O’Donnell will need to stand up in a technically astute and incredibly aggressive pack. But it’s out wide where Munster have broken with tradition and put together a backline that is oozing with flair and pace, with Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Casey Lualala all capable of moments of magic – and with Ian Keatley looking more and more comfortable in O’Gara’s old shirt, the future is looking very bright indeed for the men in red.
And with good reason, too. Their performance against Toulouse in the quarter finals was arguably the most dominant display ever seen in the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition, and in many ways echoed their display against Harlequins at the same stage in the previous year – they were simply too fast and too aggressive for the opposition to handle. This competition brings out the best in Munster year after year, and come Sunday you will see them fighting tooth and nail for every point, every loose ball and every inch on the field.
Head to Head: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe v CJ Stander
These two men cut contrasting figures in terms of their status at their clubs. The Toulon man is a club legend, while Stander has spent large swathes of his Munster career warming the bench behind club captain Peter O’Mahony. Lobbe is more of a marauding type of flanker in the Toulon back row – the poaching is mostly done by Steffon Armitage, but you will find the Argentinean skipper hitting ruck after ruck, stepping in at first receiver and carrying the ball hard himself. Stander is a bit of an all-rounder, but if Munster may miss O’Mahony at the breakdown they will not miss his work rate – the South African is a real grafter. It is the biggest game of his career and he will need to stand up and be counted against the star studded Toulon back row.
Munster’s form in the quarter final was a real statement – a dominant performance of unrivalled intensity – and they will need to pull exactly the same kind of display out of the hat when they travel to the south of France. I think they will be most neutrals’ preferred choice of finalist – for the sake of variety if nothing else – but I can’t see them getting a win against the reigning champions. Toulon may not be your typical all-singing, all-dancing French side but, thanks to millions of Euros-worth of experience, they know how to win the biggest games. I expect Wilkinson’s boot alone to be the difference, and we’ll be seeing the Galacticos of Europe in the final once again. Toulon by 3.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images