A Fading Force
The last time Munster played Toulon, the French side ended their title ambitions at the semi-final stage in the Stade Vélodrome. The three-times European champions were at their peak in 2014, and had too much firepower for a Munster team that were in a state of transition. 24-16 probably wasn’t a fair reflection of how competitive Munster were on the day, but the strength of the Toulon bench was ultimately the difference between the two.
Toulon have lost a number of their star players in the meantime; Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha and Leigh Halfpenny are no longer with the club, and their attempts at replacing them with personnel of the same calibre have not been successful. After trying the mercurial Quade Cooper at 10 for a season, they brought in François Trinh-Duc to fill the void. His inept performance against Wales in the final round of this year’s Six Nations is proof that, at 31, he is never going to be a top-class, game-managing out-half, and as gifted as Anthony Belleau is, he’s unproven above a certain level.
He doesn’t have the experience or temperament that Wilkinson had, and while those things will come with age, winning trophies without a seasoned out-half is an exceptionally difficult ask. Thomond Park isn’t a welcoming environment for any visiting team, especially one with a rookie 10 who has produced moments of magic in the pool stages, but hasn’t endured the white heat of playing in a quarter-final in Limerick. Wilkinson was the backbone of that highly successful Toulon side and without his reassuring presence, they have looked rudderless in the knockout stages in recent years.
Giteau is also a huge loss, not just because of his vast experience, but because his distribution gave Toulon a second passing option that got the best out of their back line. Ma’a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa are classy internationals, but both are strike runners, and neither of them complement Mathieu Bastareaud particularly well. Despite the presence of Samu Manoa and Romain Taofifénua, Bakkies Botha’s unique brand of bone-crunching physicality and general abrasiveness have been missed in the second row, and none of the kickers in the Toulon squad are anywhere near as accurate from the tee as Halfpenny.
Chris Ashton’s covering of the backfield and aerial skills are a couple of levels below the Welsh full-back, and although Toulon are capable of throwing the ball around and scoring tries, they don’t exert the same control over games that they used to. Putting 49 points on a Clermont side deserves to be applauded, even if Clermont’s tackling was woeful last weekend, but Toulon aren’t invincible, and if Munster hold their shape and stay disciplined, then anything is possible.
Munster were discommoded by the Scarlets’ wide-wide attack in the early part of the game last week, but once they turned the contest into an arm wrestle, the quality of their scrum shone through:
Without behemoths like Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Carl Hayman, Toulon aren’t quite as adept at strangling their opponents in the maul. Their scrum is still strong enough to win penalties, but not as dominant as before. Like many Top 14 sides, Toulon’s discipline is poor, and with Munster’s ability to match them in the set-pieces, and a playmaking inside centre like Rory Scannell at 12 adding an extra layer of complexity to their attack, they have all the tools required to rack up enough points to win this game, injury-ravaged back line aside.
On the other hand, containing Toulon won’t be easy, and Munster’s impressive defence will to be put to the test. He may not be the biggest, but Sam Arnold has the physicality to handle Bastareaud and the same can be said for Rory Scannell with regards to Nonu. Stopping Toulon’s enormous midfield is only half the battle, though. Fabien Galthié has encouraged flair over brawn, and as painful as it might be to admit, they are more enjoyable to watch now than they were 2 or 3 years ago.
Out wide is where Toulon can really hurt defences with the pace they have on the wings. This is where Munster will have to gamble with their blitz because Ashton, Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova can’t be afforded space in the 15-metre channel, and much like Jacob Stockdale did for Ireland in the Six Nations, Alex Wootton and Andrew Conway could profit from rushing up whenever a member of the Toulon midfield throw a skip pass.
A low penalty count has been the foundation of this Munster side’s greatest wins since they first emerged as a European superpower, and that trend has continued under Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Graan. Back in November, Ireland limited Springbok entries into their 22 to almost nothing by being miserly with their concession of penalties. Toulon play a more expansive style of rugby than South Africa, but they’re not exactly the All Blacks, either. Wins are hard to come by when you don’t get at least a handful of set-pieces inside the opposition ten-metre line (glittering back line notwithstanding), and Munster will need to be patient without the ball.
Jacques Nienaber worked wonders with Munster’s defence and JP Ferreira has built on the foundations that his predecessor put in place. Munster have been obdurate without possession for the majority of the season, with one of their finest defensive performances being their pool fixture against Racing 92 back in October, when they limited a team with Dan Carter, Joe Rokococo and Leone Nakarawa to a solitary late try.
Munster’s most convincing home European victories have been based on the single-minded aim of giving their visitors absolutely nothing and sending them home from Thomond Park with two black eyes and a bloody nose. This mentality was clear to see in the above-mentioned Racing 92 encounter, with constant bruising hits denying the Parisians any sort of go-forward ball. Their last Champions Cup game saw them keep a tricky enough Castres side tryless in another showing of good defensive organisation and brute force in the contact zone.
It’s not beyond Munster to replicate those levels of intensity, and if they can ensure their defence is airtight again tomorrow, expose Ashton in the backfield, draw offside penalties from the Toulon pack by having Conor Murray snipe around the ruck, get their maul motoring and exploit the suspect defensive reading of Radradra and Tuisova, a win is will within their remit.