If we are to believe their coach Philipe Saint Andre, Toulon arrive in Limerick today on an educational journey more than a quest to take control of the most competitive Pool in this year’s competition.
And a measure of the challenge that faces Munster tomorrow can be gleaned in the fact that among Saint-Andre's eager pupils will be Jonny Wilkinson who will be sitting in the back of the class while Felipe Contepomi takes centre stage. Toulon are perhaps the only club in world rugby who can afford to have out-halves of the quality of Wilkinson and Contepomi in their squad.
Add in the likes of Paul Sackey, Pierre Mignoni, Carl Hayman, George Smith and skipper Johan Van Niekerk and you understand why Mick Galwey refers to them as, 'the best that money can buy'.
Galwey, now a part of the Munster management once famously exorted his colleagues some years ago to “please try keep it under 60”, as they faced the conversion of yet another Toulouse try and his team manager that day was Jerry Holland.
Now, as once again Munster are faced with one of these “must win games”, a feature of their unsurpassed record of 12 successive quarter final qualifications, Holland wonders about the expectation that's out there among supporters, on the eve of their clash with mega-rich Toulon and their galaxy of stars.
“I think the level of expectation from our supporters is a little unrealistic. I'm not sure there is an awareness of the challenge Munster face, particularly tomorrow.” Holland says.” It's probably because of what the team have achieved to date. They've become victims of their own success. And of course they wouldn't have it any other way. But people need to be conscious of the enormous challenge they (Munster) face, not just tomorrow, but every time they step out in this competition. Especially against French opposition.”
Holland was team manager in each of the years that Munster reached the final including 2006 and 2008 when they won the trophy and he recalls the influence the crowd played. “I recall Stade (Francais) coming to Thomond and Biarritz the day Axel scored his hat-trick and won a lifetime of Pizza's.”
“Then there were the games against Perpignan and Bourgoin and everybody had huge respect for these teams. While they were great games, they were complete dogfights for the first hour and it was only in the final 20 that these games were won.”
“In the run up to those games,” he recalls, “you could feel the excitement all week and on the day of the game the place (Thomond) was just hopping.”
“But now there doesn't seem to be the same anticipation, the result almost taken for granted. And if they don't win in style…. ? God be with the days we used be delighted to win convincingly – by a point !”
“What Munster have achieved, qualify for the knock-outs for the past 12 successive years, is phenomenal. Toulouse, Leicester, they haven't managed that.” Holland reminds us.
“But I think the supporters need to guard against complacency, bring a little bit of perspective to the expectations. What the team needs tomorrow is for the supporters to create the intimidating atmosphere that Toulon will be expecting and maybe bring a bit of the old atmosphere back to Thomond Park.”
Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J Murphy, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy capt. Replacements: J Flannery, M Horan, J Hayes, D Ryan, J Coughlan, N Ronan, D Williams, S Deasy.
Toulon: C Marienval; P Sackey, M Kefu, F Auelua, R Wulf; F Contepomi, P Mignoni; L Emmanuelli, J-P Genevois, C Hayman; J Suta, K Chesney; G Smith, J El Abd, J Van Niekerk capt. Replacements: M Ivaldi, S Taumoepeau, D Kubriashvili, O Missoup, G Lovobalavu, J Wilkinson, L Magnaval, D Schofield.
Referee: Wayne Barnes.