Planet Rugby

Preview: Toulon v Munster

25th April 2014 12:03

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Toulon fly half Jonny Wilkinson being tackled against Munster in 2011

Business end: Wilkinson

Toulon will be gunning for back-to-back Irish scalps when they take on Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Marseille's Stade Vélodrome.

Leinster were well beaten by the star-studded French side at Stade Mayol as the likes of Matt Giteau and Steffon Armitage led Toulon to victory.

Matt O'Connor's charges, of course missing the talismanic figure of Sean O'Brien, could not match the power of their hosts and that's how Toulon will hope things pan out on Sunday. Coincidentally, Munster are without their own key player as flank Peter O'Mahony was injured during the quarters.

But can we write off Munster against the holders? Not on your life as this team's love affair with the Heineken Cup runs deep - and wouldn't it be fitting that in its last season in this current format, Munster lifted the trophy on May 24 for a third time, once again at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Standing in their path is a formidable challenge, however, of that there's no doubt as Toulon have upped their efforts since Bernard Laporte was under pressure earlier in the domestic season, with top spot in the Top 14 now where they sit as Clermont's away day blues in the league have finally come back to haunt them.

Maybe the depth in their squad is now coming to the fore as the tighthead prop luxury they have - along with losing Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams leading to Danie Rossouw starring against Leinster - painting the picture of a side that has all the tools to retain this trophy.

Munster will know that halting the momentum Rossouw and Armitage created against Leinster is vital and Paul O'Connell, James Coughlan and CJ Stander are the men they'll look to for nous and power, with Stander getting his chance due to O'Mahony's absence.

Further back scrum-half Conor Murray's form is also key as if he gets on top of Sebastien Tillous-Borde, while their midfield combination of James Downey and Casey Laulala - the latter rested against Connacht last weekend - disarm the threat Mathieu Bastareaud brings, Munster can prevail against the odds for what would be another European feat of note.

Ones to watch:

For Toulon: Munster will be difficult to break down and it might need something special from Matt Giteau to unlock the defence. While others who made the move north have struggled and dipped their form for whatever reason, this Australian has been superb for Toulon and is an ideal man to have outside Jonny Wilkinson when a tempo increase is required. Also keep an eye on Steffon Armitage - it appears England boss Stuart Lancaster will be.

For Munster: He was our one to watch pre-tournament for Munster and yet is rarely given enough minutes to show his talents. CJ Stander is some back-row who consistently turns up when given a run. Few come as big as this game and we expect him to grab his chance.

Head-to-head: Two powerful centres collide on Sunday as Mathieu Bastareaud and Casey Laulala go toe-to-toe in a battle that can't be downplayed. Stopping what Bastareaud did to Leinster is one of Munster's objectives and Laulala, who can also attack, has to be solid.

Prediction: The 'hosts' to win but closer than the bookmakers suggest. Toulon by 4!

The teams:

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (c), 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Steffon Armitage, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Jocelino Suta, 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Virgile Bruni, 20 David Smith, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Konstantine Mikautadze.

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 Sean Dougall, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley (c), 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Duncan Casey, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Denis Hurley.

Date: Sunday, April 27
Kick-off: 16:30 local (15:30 BST)
Venue: Stade Vélodrome, Marseilles
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)

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