Paul O’Connell has warned Munster will need to improve by ‘a minimum of 40%’ if they are to overcome fellow European giants Toulouse on Saturday and reach their 11th Heineken Cup semi-final in 15 years.
The Heineken Cup knockout stages get underway on Saturday afternoon with the heavyweight clash of Munster and Toulouse. The game marks the first visit of the French four-time champions to Thomond Park.
Munster, who topped Pool 6 and qualified as fourth seeds, will be appearing in a record 15th Heineken Cup quarter-final.
A 26,600-capacity crowd, which will include 3,000 travelling fans from Toulouse, is set to witness a mouthwatering confrontation between two of the great European clubs.
Munster have faced Toulouse on four occasions in the Heineken Cup with two wins apiece, and will have fond memories of their last meeting – the 2008 final in Cardiff where the province prevailed on a 16-13 scoreline.
Munster’s current crop have been installed as 8/13 favourites to overcome Guy Noves’ multi-talented side in Limerick this weekend, but talismanic lock Paul O’Connell does not agree with the bookmakers’ assessment.
“I am not trying to build us up to be underdogs, to give us a reason to perform. I don’t see how you could put the two teams down on paper beside each other and put us as favourites,” he said.
“I don’t see how you put us the way we have been playing over the last few weeks, the last few months, and make us favourites in any way.
“We probably need to go a minimum of 40% above where we have been since Christmas to have a chance of winning.
“(The improvement) is there in training, it’s there in training every week and it’s there in matches in little fits and starts. Just to win these big Heineken Cup games you need 80 minutes of relentless rugby on both sides of the ball.
“Whether you are defending, whether you are attacking, whether you are chasing kicks or whatever you are doing, you need to be relentless and we haven’t been like that for 80 minutes at any stage this year, maybe once or twice.”
Although he dismissed the favourites’ tag, O’Connell knows full well how capable Munster are of producing big European performances – you only have to look back at last season’s knockout displays against Harlequins and Clermont Auvergne to confirm that.
In addition, there was not much wrong with Munster’s form during the months of January and February.
They finished the pool stages by defeating Gloucester (away) and Edinburgh (home) before claiming back-to-back bonus point wins over Cardiff Blues and Zebre in the league and also winning away to regular PRO12 rivals the Ospreys.
However, the March defeats to the Scarlets and Leinster, coupled with their failure to register a try-scoring bonus point at home to Benetton Treviso, will have caused some concern.
Still, you cannot discount the ‘Thomond Park factor’. Munster’s incredible Heineken Cup record in Limerick over 19 seasons includes just two defeats – Leicester Tigers in a January 2007 pool match and Ulster in the 2012 quarter-final.
So, does O’Connell reckon Rob Penney’s men have it in them to add to the province’s proud European history this Saturday? Most definitely – but only if they can provide a platform for their chief attackers.
“We have the quality to do it. We need to show it and play well. You look at some of the guys we have – Tommy O’Donnell is as fast as any back, David Kilcoyne is probably the same.
“Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Casey Laulala, Felix (Jones), they have incredible feet, great speed, great fitness but if you turn over the ball after one or two phases of the scrum or the lineout, these guys don’t get the chance to get the ball in their hand. They don’t get the chance to show what they can do.”
Asked for his thoughts on Toulouse, he admitted: “I think they are somewhat a little like the French team in that they have quality across the park and I just think on the really big days, they are one of, if not the best team in the competition.
“Maybe it is because in Munster and Ireland we have such an affinity with the Heineken Cup and we’re so used to watching Toulouse and their incredible style of rugby.
“To me they are one of the best teams in the competition and if you look at them on paper, if you look at their budget, if you look at the squad they have it’s an incredible squad of players with an incredible talent, skill, size, footwork. It’s an uphill task for us this weekend.”
On the injury front, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony, who was a late withdrawal before the Leinster game due to a hamstring twinge, is following a ‘modified training week’.
Meanwhile, hooker Damien Varley, who stepped in as skipper last Saturday night, is also being managed training-wise after a previous foot injury flared up against Leinster.
Head coach Penney said: “Peter is on a managed workload at the start of the week, obviously after the late withdrawal from the match on Saturday. Hopefully, he’ll have no repercussions on Wednesday.
“He trained – and trained well – today (Tuesday) but not fully. Hopefully by the end of the week, he’s got no repercussions from today and he’ll be alright. I think it’ll make itself very clear by Thursday.
“Donnacha Ryan (who has a foot injury) is probably very unlikely, but we’ll make a decision on that a little bit later in the week. He’s on a rehab action plan and it will either be right or it won’t. We’ll know that quite quickly over the next couple of days.”
He added: “Damien (Varley) is fine. He’s on a managed workload as well. Given the history of his foot injury he suffered in Ulster a few months ago, we’re just managing him, so he should be fine to go.”
Prop Stephen Archer has been ruled out for the next few weeks after sustaining a bulging disc in his neck at training late last week.