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A pair of European Rugby Champions Cup heavyweights are set reignite an age-old rivalry when they collide at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Munster, who have won more European Cup games than any other side, welcome the most decorated side in the competition, Toulouse, for a mouthwatering quarter-final clash. The old foes last met in the quarter-finals three years ago, and the hosts will be hoping for a repeat result.
Keith Earls, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo all crossed for tries in a thumping 47-23 triumph to seal a place in the last four of the European Cup. Munster also claimed their second continental title against the four-time champions in 2008 when they ground out a 16-13 triumph at Principality Stadium. And Munster captain Peter O’Mahony is relishing the opportunity to write a new chapter in their European history.
He said: “We have a massive challenge this weekend, but it’s great to be back at Thomond Park for the quarter final of Europe – not to have to drag our supporters all over Europe. Both teams have a huge amount of experience and are successful and proud in Europe. Toulouse, with their history, will want to be back winning trophies, as do we.
“They are a big, big pack, possibly the most physical in Europe and we can’t let ourselves be thrown about. We are a very proud team who will front up and get stuck in but we’ll do plenty thinking on top of that.
They have a world class backline as well with a huge amount of internationals and one thing’s for certain, they won’t lack guys who have experienced rugby at the highest level, be that in Europe or in Test matches.”
Toulouse will be hoping to leave their TOP14 woes behind them when they make the trip to Ireland this weekend. Ugo Mola’s side currently sit ninth in the league with only one victory in their last five matches.
In contrast, Munster are flying high into this mouthwatering contest. Rassie Erasmus’s men have won 10 of their last 11 fixtures, and a win here would earn them a trip to BT Murrayfield to take-on Glasgow Warriors, or an Aviva Stadium clash with European champions Saracens. Toulouse centre Florian Fritz cannot wait to get back on Irish soil for a special European occasion.
He said: “It is the Irish public in general, but it is true that in Munster, they build a really special atmosphere and keep that up throughout the game, even for the opponents.
“I remember, when you get back on the pitch, that you start the warm-up laps, the fans applaud you. There is not a sound when the kicker is preparing his kicks. It is true that it is not far from being the best rugby public in the world in my opinion.”
- This will be the sixth match between the two former champions with the last four encounters all coming in the knockout stage (three Munster wins, one for Toulouse).
- Munster have won 31 of their last 34 home games (L3) in the European Cup and have won seven of eight home quarter-final ties. Ulster in 2012 are the only club to win a quarter-final at Thomond Park.
- Toulouse have lost their last two quarter-final matches (including a 47-23 defeat at Thomond Park in 2014) and the last time they reached the semi-finals in 2011, they lost to Leinster.
- Munster and Toulouse have the tournament record number of appearances in the knockout stage with 16 apiece
- This will be the 157th match for both clubs in the competition.
- Munster conceded four tries in the pool stage, fewer than any other side with all four scores coming in the second half.
- Toulouse have lost six of their last seven away games in the Champions Cup, with their one win in this period coming against Zebre in Parma.
- CJ Stander made exactly 100 carries in the pool stage, 22 more than any other player. He and Jamie Heaslip (who misses Leinster's quarter-final against Wasps) are the only two players to have played every minute of the competition to date.
- Toulouse averaged more offloads per game than any other side in the pool stage (23.7), while Joe Tekori made 21, six more than any other player.
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Munster booked a 12th semi-final appearance after initially being pushed hard for a 41-16 victory over Toulouse at a nervy Thomond Park.
The Irish club seemed to have the last four place in the bag at the break but Toulouse refused to lie down and a rash of Munster injuries left it in the balance until late, late tries from Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway eased home nerves and put a gloss on the final score.
This was billed as the clash of the ‘European Titans’, two teams with six European Cup titles between them, both playing a record 157th game in the tournament.
But Toulouse are something of a fallen giant these days, a team struggling to keep pace with the big spending clubs in the Top 14 and languishing in 10th place in their domestic league and in the end they were well and truly beaten.
And they couldn’t have got off to a worse start at a packed Thomond Park, the venue at which they were beaten 47-23 at the same stage in 2014.
The last thing you want to do in Limerick is get the crowd into the game early doors, or give Munster the chance to take an early score. That’s why No 8 Francois Cros can expect a tough time in the match review for needlessly charging into Duncan Williams with his elbow well after the ball had gone.
The game was less than two minutes old and, by the time the 23-year-old returned, his side were 10 points adrift. It wasn’t quite game over, but it gave the home side, still riding on the emotional wave of the passing of Anthony Foley, a real grip on the game.
Two close range line-outs finally opened up a gap for Heineken man-of-the-match prop John Ryan to drive through for a try at the posts and Tyler Bleyendaal added the extras.
The Kiwi outside half then punished experienced Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini for pulling down and maul and Bleyendaal made it 10 points in as many minutes.
After that, though, Toulouse settled down and used their huge pack to make vital inches. Jean-Marc Doussain kicked three penalties, interspersed with a second from Bleyendaal, and the gap at half-time was probably better than expected at a mere four points, especially as it took six camera views from the TMO to deny a try for Bleyendaal after a knock-on was spotted by Tommy O’Donnell.
With the swirling wind behind them Munster wasted no time in building up a bigger cushion. Bleyendaal thumped over a penalty from the half-way line and then their ‘go-to’ man CJ Stander converted a neat peel from a five metre line-out into typical close range try.
Bleyendaal couldn’t improve the try, but he stroked over a simple penalty in front of the posts to make it 11 points in 13 minutes at the start of the second half to extend the lead to 15 points.
A touchline break by Paul Perez and Yoann Maestri was finished by Perez in the left corner and Doussain landed a magnificent touchline conversion to cut the gap to eight points and keep the door slightly ajar.
But Munster finished the stronger with those late scores and are through for yet another semi-final.