JUST like so many other aging sports people, there are many things about my playing days that corrosion and time have erased from my mind.
However, hiding away in the inner depths of what remains, there are some great memories and some seminal moments: 1996, Toulouse 70 Munster 19
This certainly doesn’t go down as one of those imposing recollections. What it did do was give the blazers in the IRFU a good kick in the arse and made them realise that if the provinces were going to successfully compete on a European stage, they would have to completely reevaluate how they governed the professional game in Ireland.
While the accounts of that game itself are, thankfully, nothing but a blur, there is one moment that still remains as fresh as a daisy; the great Mick Galwey calling us in for a chat under the posts just after our ruthless hosts had crossed our try-line again.
Probably one of the most influential leaders I’ve ever listened to and played under, on this occasion there was nothing the Kerry native could do to halt the tsunami of tries that the French were washing us away with.
However, at some point in the second half, Gaillimh gathered us around him under the posts, and his oxygen-deprived voice uttered the following.
“Lads, for f@*k sake, can we please keep them under 50, the game is live on TV back home.”
Regrettably, his request went unanswered because about four or five minutes later he repeated the appeal in the exact same spot, adjusting the number for runaway inflation.
It was a very harsh lesson for us as players to comprehend, albeit it had a monumental effect on the way the professional game is run today; for that, us lab rats of the professional era can take some solace.
Since that day Munster have had some great days against the French galacticos and many would suggest that it was their semi-final victory in 2000 (31-25) that really kickstarted their European exploits and engraved their name into the history books of European Cup rugby.
On Sunday, Munster again find themselves gazing down the barrel of a Toulouse side that could easily amass a very big scoreline if they are not physically and mentally prepared.
Last weekend, as Munster were disposing of a Northampton side whose pathetic first-half display should be reflected in their players’ wage slips, Toulouse were busy dissolving a determined Sale side that made them fight hard for their victory.
Were it not for Sale been reduced to 14 men midway through the first half, I believe the result could have been a lot closer. That was last week, and a Toulouse side playing on overseas soil and a Toulouse side playing in their own back garden is like comparing chalk and cheese.
As we know, French sides don’t travel well, but when they are at home their endorphins seem to send very different signals to their brains. Signals that transform them into intelligent, powerful, and ruthless athletes that have the ability to turn defence into spellbinding attack in the blink of an eye.
When you have players like Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack pulling the strings as half-backs whose awareness is a thing of beauty, and a pack of forwards who could easily be picked en bloc to represent their country, what you end up with is a team that has the ability to win any competition in the world — north or south of the Equator.
The one area that I fear the most for Munster on this occasion is the scrum; if there was ever a game where they must bend the rules to survive, this would be it.
Scrummaging is a rather dark art that only the very brave or foolish, depending on whose opinion you are seeking, choose to earn a living from.
While rugby has been sanitised to the point where looking at someone aggressively could earn you a red card, there are things that go on in a scrum that not even the great man above could understand.
If Graham Rowntree can muster up a strategy that Munster’s scrum can at least gain parity, it would go a long way towards keeping the game a viable contest; should it creek and moan from the off, it won’t be long before Toulouse turn every scrum into a penalty and if that happens we can say goodbye to any chance of an win.
While playing knockout rugby is the only true barometer we should judge this Munster side by, this result will give us a very fair indication of where Rowntree will need to strengthen his squad.
On this occasion, we might need another miracle to get us over the line, and I’m not so sure if our allocation has been replenished yet.