There was a sense of inevitability as Ireland defeated England to secure the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day. With the best players, coach, and an unrivaled player welfare system, Ireland made sure this year’s Six Nations title would be theirs with minimum fuss. It was an unusual feeling to be so comfortable, but didn’t we celebrate it well?
It’s not every day an Irish team gets their hands on silverware after all.
But doesn’t every great sports film have twists and turns, moments of drama, moments of joy and a nail-biting finish? Isn’t that why we love sport – and rugby in particular? To reign supreme when the odds are stacked against you, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?
When that final whistle blew in Twickenham the taste of success was sweet. The only better feeling? That would be the simultaneous release of nervous energy, sense of relief and explosion of joy that we’ve come so accustomed to with Irish sporting victories down through the years.
England were defeated with All Black-like comfort, with German efficiency. Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have bucked the trend of Irish sport here.
Irish teams as we knew them required a last-minute drop kick from Ronan O’Gara, a last minute Robbie Brady header…to be home and hosed with a 21-5 half time lead is unheard of! How could a little island be so powerful and in control?
Doing things the hard way has been strangely central to the Munster Rugby love affair of the last two decades and unlike Ireland, it doesn’t look like changing very soon. With all factors taken into an account, a win against three-time champions Toulon would be nothing less than spectacular.
If you’ve forgotten what shattered nerves feel like, your wait is almost over.
The last two quarter-finals played in Thomond Park brought Toulouse to this part of the world; a fallen giant in many respects and a team that Munster routinely dispatched on both occasions. Again, the comfort with which Munster won those games meant there was little drama, but from a rugby point of view there was a feeling that the fixtures left Munster under-cooked in advance of the semi-final stages. Facing Toulon will leave no such problems – the new kings of French rugby are a different beast.
Mourad Boudjellal’s Toulon squad truly is a who’s who of world rugby. The list of superstars is lengthy and in the centre position alone head coach Fabien Galthié has the dilemma of picking two starters from a very special trio of Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud and Malakai Fekitoa.
Toulon’s centre options in stark contrast to Munster’s. With Chris Farrell, Jaco Taute, Keith Earls and potentially Rory Scannell all out of the quarter final, Johann Van Graan is down to the bare bones. The South African doesn’t have the luxury of choosing from Nonu, Basteraud and Fekitoa, but rather Goggin, Arnold and Hanrahan. Only something special will be enough to overturn such a mismatch and that only adds to the excitement. Excitement rather than fear because these young lads do have something special about them.
Van Graan knows it too. Speaking to the media ahead of the quarter final the head coach was in bullish form. “Rugby games are won in the hearts of men. We back the people of Munster to pull us through. I get goosebumps when I say things like this but sport is about doing the unthinkable, go to where other teams aren’t prepared to go.”
And he wasn’t done just yet. “You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning [at training] and everyone is ready to go.”
Munster can’t just defeat Toulon by executing a system a la Irlande; general Van Gran must instead send those ‘warriors’ to the field on Saturday afternoon with more than tactics on their mind. Rugby can get teams so far, the magic that makes sport so special can bring them above and beyond.
Nobody knows that better than Munster.
Munster Haka Selection: Kilcoyne, Scannell, Ryan, Kleyn, Holland, O’Mahony (c), Oliver, Stander; Murray, Keatley, Scannell, Arnold; Conway, Sweetnam, Zebo