Toulon vs. Munster: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Heineken Cup Semi-Final
Munster travel to Marseille to take on the champions in the last four of the Heineken Cup.
The Irish giants have not gone beyond this stage since they last won the competition in 2006, while Toulon are looking to become only the third side to retain the title.
Having seen off another Irish province in the last round, Bernard Laporte’s side start as favourites to send Munster the same way as Leinster.
For Munster, a side who have won at this stage on French soil before and having already knocked out Toulouse, the trip to the Cote d’Azur will hold no fears.
Their blend of youth and experience against Toulon’s expensively assembled side of globe-trotters has all the makings of a titanic struggle.
Here are the matchups to watch out for.
1. Jonny Wilkinson vs. Ian Keatley
One man has been there, done it and got the medal. The other is in the process of shrugging off the shadow of the tournament’s greatest ever points machine.
This is the most contrasting clash of experience on show this weekend as Jonny Wilkinson goes up against the man charged with the job of filling Ronan O’Gara’s sizeable boots.
Wilkinson showed another young No. 10 exactly how it was done at this stage last season when he kicked Owen Farrell and Saracens out of the semi-final at Twickenham.
He is up against Ian Keatley, who has performed well in some big games this season, notably when he had to pull Munster out of the fire on another trip to France against Perpignan.
ESPN Scrum’s Paul Eddison has questioned whether the European champions are better without their talismanic Englishman at the helm in terms of creativity, but coach Bernard Laporte is never going to make do without the man who kicked every opportunity that came his way in last season’s knockout stages.
And in a game that could go either way by a single score, you would back Wilkinson to do the business.
One man has played under pressure for his entire career; the other is set to find out what this level is all about.
2. Danie Rossouw vs. Paul O’Connell
Staff at the Stade Velodrome would do well to check the foundations of the old ground before these two collide.
Paul O’Connell continues to produce displays of the highest quality at the highest level, while Rossouw partners Jocelino Suta in the Toulon engine room with the absence of Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams.
Any side in world rugby would miss those two, so Rossouw has a huge burden on his shoulders to bring the physicality needed to match O'Connell and try to ensure the Irishman doesn't wreak havoc at line-out time.
Whoever can maintain his pack’s intensity at the required level, win the line-out battle and put the best ball-carrying shift in will have a huge say in which side holds sway in this contest.
3. Drew Mitchell vs. Simon Zebo
Simon Zebo, the slippery, elusive box of tricks, versus the reliability, consistency and finishing power of Drew Mitchell.
Zebo has had an injury-interrupted season so far but his match-winning quality is a weapon Munster can ill-afford to leave on the bench in this contest.
Mitchell knows his way to the try-line and carries a tremendous threat when cutting in off his wing should the centre pairing of Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud create some holes for the Australian.
4. Juan Smith vs. C.J. Stander
Smith's return from Achilles problems that looked likely to end his career has been impressive. The South African back-rower has slipped into fine form in the second half of the season and will be crucial in slowing down Munster's ball as they look to shift the point of attack out wide.
C.J. Stander has had the lofty task of covering for the injured Peter O'Mahony in the Munster back row, but he has been outstanding in doing so.
The South African-born player now qualifies to play for his adopted country and will undergo no better examination of his international credentials than that posed by Smith.
Turnovers will provide the key to control in this game.
5. Matt Giteau vs. James Downey
Matt Giteau has been superb in the No. 10 jersey while Jonny Wilkinson recovers from a hamstring strain, but he reverts to his more familiar No. 12 role for Sunday's clash.
The Australian playmaker can unlock any defence with his quick feet and turn of speed, so James Downey faces a difficult task in keeping the Wallaby under lock and key.
Downey's more direct style will test Giteau's tackling ability and he will be used by Munster to set a focal point for their attacking patterns before the ball is given some width.
If he does it well, Munster will profit.