European Cup final: Sea of red-shirted fans can help Munster to taste Heineken glory

Battle with big hitters Toulouse should be one for the connoisseur
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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks ago a Llanellilock-forward by the name of Lou Reed took a walk on the wild side, obstructed Peter Stringer in an offside position and conceded a penalty in the 10th minute of injury time that allowed Munster to record a 24-23 victory.

On the face of it, it did not seem that big a deal. The Magners League may be the bread and butter for Munster, with a drop of cider, but they dedicate most of their time to the Heineken Cup. Yet the players celebrated that win at Stradey Park – if there were any visiting supporters they were neither seen nor heard – with some enthusiasm. They fielded, initially at least, a strong team and did not want to return to Ireland as losers, even though their Dublin rivals Leinster had the Magners title in the bag.

The Heineken, though, is a different story. With Munster it always is. This season they qualified top of Pool Five (they got into the Heineken by finishing sixth in the Magners) and Toulouse, their opponents in the final next Saturday, finished top of Pool Six, condemning Leinster and Leicester to premature exits. Munster v Toulouse? It should be one for the connoisseur, a contest between two of the heaviest hitters in Europe.

If support, red in tooth and claw, can be converted into points, Munster have a head start. When they finally secured their holy grail at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2006 with a 23-19 victory over Biarritz, the attendance was 74,534, and the French supporters were outnumbered 15 to one. Toulouse will bring more, but they will still be surrounded. The men from Munster have been saving up for this.

There is something heroic and fanatical in their pursuit of the European club championship. They bring with them not so much a sea of red as oceans 11. This is Munster's fourth Heineken Cup final. They lost to Northampton 9-8 at Twickenham in 2000 and to Leicester 15-9 at the Millennium Stadium two years later, when Neil Back famously had an illegal hand in the Tigers' victory, knocking the ball out of Stringer's hands as the Munster scrum-half was about to feed a scrum in front of the Leicester posts.

For the veteran Fabien Pelous, this year's final promises to be a swansong. He has played a significant role in Toulouse's Euro-pean campaigns and is expectedto retire after winning a record 118 French caps, although Guy Noves is hoping to persuade the lock to play one more season.

"I am always reluctant in a team game to put an individual on a pedestal, but in Fabien's case I make an exception," the coach said. "He has been an outstanding professional and a role model for anybody who wants to make a career out of rugby. He's never missed a training session and has always given 100 per cent."

Noves, who has been in charge at Toulouse for 15 years, made one of his more inspired decisions when he signed Pelous from Dax in 1997. Under his captaincy they won the Heineken Cup in 2003 and 2005 (they had taken the inaugural title at the old Cardiff Arms Park in 1996 by beating Cardiff after extra time) and in between he led France to a Six Nations Grand Slam.

"Fabien has been a success on every level and we have a great deal to thank him for," added Noves. There will also be an emotional farewell for the Munster coach, Declan Kidney. He succeeds the deposed Eddie O'Sullivan as head coach of Ireland and the province are determined that Kidney's departure should not distract in any shape or form from the squad's concentration on the final.

Even so, the speculation surrounding the man who will transplant Kidney has been rife in Limerick, and the front-runner appears to be the Australian Tony McGahan. He is in his first season with Munster and has made a big impression.

An infusion of southern-hemisphere talent into the back line, not least the try-scoring exploits of the All Black wing Doug Howlett, has brought greater scope to Munster's game but, under McGahan, it is in defence that they have excelled.

The pack, under the captaincyof Paul O'Connell, pretty much picks itself, but it is at scrum-half where Kidney has to make a key decision. Does he go for the more athletic Tomas O'Leary to partner Ronan O'Gara or the old boy Stringer? Against a side containing Byron Kelleher, Kidney's last call could be critical.

Watch the Heineken Cup final on Sky Sports next Saturday, kick-off 5pm

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