Munster are up against it this weekend in Marseille, here are three key Toulon players that pose the biggest threat to Rob Penney’s men.
Not for the first time in their storied career in the Heineken Cup, Munster travel to France in a knockout tie as underdogs. However, on this occasion the men from the South of Ireland are more than merely that, they are widely viewed as a helpless Jack Russell trying to compete with the rabid Rottweiler that is this Toulon team.
The term ‘galactico’ was coined over a decade ago to make reference to the array of world class footballers that had been accumulated at Real Madrid. The same term is rightly being thrown in Toulon’s direction these days. In a French league where money is no object for a clutch of clubs, Toulon are in a universe of their own. Their squad list is a veritable who’s who of world rugby, from World Cup winners, to record holders and everything in between.
As reigning European champions, the relentless outfit from the South of France are looking to become only the third team (after Leicester Tigers in 2001 & 2002 and Leinster in 2011 & 2012) to retain their crown. Toulon also stand on the edge of completing an unprecedented European & Top 14 double. Something many would have foreseen as impossible given the strain competing in both would put on your squad. The nouveau riche French giants need not worry about a stretched squad. Regardless of what 23 are listed to take on Munster at the weekend, there will be a litany of test level stars sitting in the cheap seats. It will take a superhuman effort by an unheralded Munster side to topple their hosts, but if anyone is going to nip at the heels of the bigger adversary long enough to cause an upset, it will be the men in red.
Toulon have moved this fixture from their intimidating Stade Felix Mayol home ground to the nearby Stade Velodrome soccer stadium in Marseille. That may offer Munster some solace but if there are three players who won’t be offering the Irish visitors any respite it will be the following three;
1. Jonny Wilkinson
Wilkinson’s involvement in the quarter-final victory over Leinster was limited because of a niggling hamstring injury. The English World Cup winner had to be removed even before the halftime whistle, but it certainly didn’t damage the French side’s hopes. Such is the depth of talent at the hands of Bernard Laporte that he was able to rejig his backline seamlessly and make light of Wilkinson’s absence. Having spent most of his career in the backwaters of the Challenge Cup (Europe’s secondary club competition), Wilkinson is revelling in his surroundings amongst the elite of the game despite his belated arrival.
Having won the tournament last season the hunger has been increased rather than satisfied. With Wilkinson’s announcement that he will be retiring at the end of the season, the World Cup winner is fully focused on ending his career on as high a note as possible.It is expected Munster will spend most of the game on the back foot and Wilkinson’s probing kicking and his taking of any points on offer will keep the Munster defence working all day. On the flip side, the one positive the visitors may take out of Wilkinson’s presence will be the notion that the backline won’t be as threatening as it might be with Matt Giteau or even Freddie Michalak at pivot. His name on the team sheet will have the local supporters in buoyant mood however, as he brings the same talismanic factor that Paul O’Connell brings for Munster.
Wilkinson has spent his whole career putting his body on the line for his team, and with so little on-field time left, don’t expect him to change his approach on Sunday.
2. Steffon Armitage
It’s hard to fathom how this little wrecking ball has been so much overlooked by England down the years. Nominally an openside flanker, Armitage has been converted into a number 8 in recent weeks and while there were some eyebrows raised initially he has been an overwhelming success in his new role.
There are murmurs that the RFU are trying their best to lure the former London Irish back row forward home ahead of the Rugby World Cup in 2015, in order to make him available for the national team. It’s hard to see him turning his back on Toulon, a place where he has really settled over the past three years and developed into a true world class operator.
Armitage’s physique makes him the perfect groundhog flanker to hover over the ball and snatch turnovers. His display against Leinster in the quarter final showcased a player at the height of his abilities. With Peter O’Mahony missing for Munster, Armitage won’t suffer the same degree of scrutiny he may have expected to come under, but he can no longer claim to be Toulon’s secret weapon and dominating him will be near the top of Munster’s to do list.
CJ Stander is not a like-for-like replacement for O’Mahony and possesses a completely different set of attributes, but he, along with Tommy O’Donnell, will need to perform out of his skin in order to contain the ticking time bomb that is Armitage.
3. Bryan Habana
It sums up the strength in depth that Toulon possess that one of the most decorated and talented wingers in the history of world rugby may not even start on Sunday afternoon. With 95 South African caps and 53 test tries to his name, there is no doubting the incredible ability the Springbok has. His time in Toulon has been testing however as he has spent the majority of his five months in the south of France to date on the injured list.
A World Cup winner in 2007, a Tri Nations winner in 2009 and a three-time Super Rugby winner, Habana is eyeing up the Heineken Cup as another medal to add to his already glittering CV. As well as those team awards Habana was voted World Player of the Year in 2007 to go along with his three South African Player of the Year gongs. Due to injury Habana has struggled to make any impact since his much-publicised move to Europe. Now that he is back nearing full fitness, the flying winger is chomping at the bit to make the impression that his price tag merits.
Should Habana get the start and be given a chance to run in space Munster will be in all sorts of bother trying to track down a man who once raced a cheetah. Habana may not play for 80 minutes, he may not play at all, but if he does he will be fully intending to make up for lost time. Munster beware.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.
The teams for Sunday’s Heineken Cup clash have been announced:
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; D Foley, P O’Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, J Ryan, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley.
Toulon: D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous Borde; X Chiocci, C Burden, C Hayman; J Suta, D Rossouw; J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage. Replacements: JC Orioli, A Menini, M Castrogiovanni, V Bruni, D Smith, M Mermoz, M Claassens, K Mikautadze.