Toulouse have a mountain to climb on their first visit to Thomond Park as they face Munster in Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Toulouse have a mountain to climb on their first visit to Thomond Park as they face Munster in Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Limerick.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Having been handed arguably the easiest pool draw of any of the European heavyweights, you would have been hard-pressed to find a pundit willing to bet against Toulouse being at home in the play-offs.
Victory at Wembley over an in-form Saracens outfit should have been enough to book a quarter-final at Stade Ernest Wallon but a shock defeat against Connacht, in Toulouse, put a massive dent in Europe's most successful club's hopes for a fifth title.
That loss has become emblematic of Toulouse's inconsistent form this season with a series of disappointing results – especially on the road – leaving les rouge et noirs in serious danger of missing the French playoffs for the first time since the creation of the Top 14.
A trip to the home of the Red Army is one of the toughest tasks in the European game – only Leicester and Ulster have ever triumphed at Thomond in the long history of the Heineken Cup – so Munster start as the favourites.
But if there is a team that has the ability to rise to the big occasion, it's Toulouse, as shown by that win in London in October.
More importantly, Guy NovÃ¨s's team seem to be finding some form at just the right time having picked up a handful of points in both Paris (against Stade FranÃ§ais) and Marseille (against Toulon) over the last fortnight.
NovÃ¨s has stressed that for all the influence of the Munster supporters, the locals will be in the stands, not on the field. With a vast amount of international experience across the park there is little danger of Saturday's visitors being overawed by the occasion.
“A few of us know this kind of atmosphere and it's true that Munster's fans are really important. But we have experienced those kind of atmospheres in the Stade de France and VÃ©lodrome over the last two weeks,” said France wing Maxime MÃ©dard.
“We won't be focused on the fans anyway, we are here to play a game of rugby. We have often played Irish teams in this tournament, including Munster. We know what our team is capable of and, the experienced players especially, the pressure of the fans won't be a problem.
“Our team is getting stronger, there is no denying that,” added MÃ©dard.
Considering Toulouse's poor form on the road and Munster's impressive home record, we'll have to take MÃ©dard's comments with a pinch of salt.
But that doesn't mean Munster are unbeatable. Their recent form has been somewhat patchy. Pro12 defeats to both the Scarlets and Leinster can hardly be described as ideal.
The change in Munster's traditional forwards-orientated style to a more open approach under Rod Penney does not mean they will not look to dominate the set piece and with Census Johnston missing from the Toulouse line-up, the scrum could be a platform for success for the hosts.
Talismanic back-row Peter O'Mahony has recovered from a hamstring twinge, taking full part in training session in Cork on Thursday and has been named to lead the home team.
The only other change to the side sees James Downey renew his centre partnership with Casey Laulala.
With the returning O'Mahony, CJ Stander moves to the replacements while John Ryan takes the place of James Cronin, who is ruled out with an ankle sprain.
Alan Cotter and Gerhard van den Heever, who was one of three players added to the Heineken Cup squad in March, are both named in their first match-day Heineken Cup squad.
Toulouse have made ten changes to the side that narrowly lost to Toulon as French internationals Maxime MÃ©dard, GaÃ«l Fickou and Yoann Maestri return having been rested.
Joe Tekori starts in the back row having featured at lock last week as Patricio Albacete starts while Jano Vermaak is preferred at scrum-half.
France number eight Louis Picamoles has been passed fit but there are still doubts over Yannick Nyanga and Luke McAlister, who are possibilities off the bench.
A decision on who will play between Nyanga, McAlister, Vincent Clerc or Clement Poitrenaud will be made at the last minute.
Players to watch:
For Munster: Munster conceded fewer (73) and won more (67) turnovers than any other club in the pool stages thanks largely to the influence of Peter O'Mahony, who has been an injury doubt having pulled out of last week's derby with Leinster at the last minute. With the threat that Toulouse pose in counter attacking from turnover ball, his presence is a massive boost for the hosts. Conor Murray was 19 when Munster won the last of their two European titles and now the Irish international, who lives close to the stadium, leads a new generation as they look to emulate the heroes of their youth.
For Toulouse: The weak link in the Toulouse chain is likely to be Yohan Montes, who has failed to impress at scrum time. He will have a target on his back. GaÃ«l Fickou is the most exciting prospect to come out of France since Wesley Fofana and is just the kind of creative player that makes the French visitors an handful to contain from broken play.
Head-to-head: Second row Yoann Maestri will be making his 75th Heineken Cup appearance as he renews his rivalry with European veteran Paul O'Connell after the two faced off in the Six Nations decider in Paris last month. Games like this are won up front and Maestri will be hard-press to match the physical presence brought by one of the world's best locks.
2008: Munster 16 – 13 Toulouse
2003: Toulouse 13 – 12 Munster
2000: Toulouse 25 – 31 Munster
Prediction: Munster's home record is pretty impressive. They have lost only once in their past 24 Heineken Cup ties at Thomond Park. Munster have played seven quarter-finals at home and won all bar one of them (against Ulster in 2012). They have also won all 22 home games in the tournament against French opposition. Amazingly, these teams have not met since 2008, when Munster won the Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff. This will be the first time they face off on Irish soil. Toulouse conceded just four tries during the pool stage – the fewest of any team – so we're unlikely to see a high-scoring affair. BetBright have the home side as the marginal favourites at around 4/7. The Thomond Park factor is impossible to ignore, so we'll back Munster to win by less than six.
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony (c), 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Duncan Casey, 17 John Ryan, 18 Alan Cotter, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 CJ