We did not require the introduction of a profoundly pointless and potentially perilous ranking system for next season's Heineken Cup draw to tell us that Toulouse and Munster are the outstanding exponents of top-class European rugby. The strongest English contenders, Leicester and Wasps, have each won the title twice, but neither have come close to playing the mind-stretching rugby associated with the Frenchmen or matching the ferocious sense of purpose that has taken the Irish hordes to a fourth final in eight years.
When the two meet at the Millennium Stadium this evening, they will remind the organisers of the virtues of the system so wilfully abandoned – a system that underpinned the Heineken Cup's claim to being the most captivating competition in the sport by providing pool matches of considerable grandeur while building towards a final between the finest teams in the tournament. Next year's round-robin stage will not be, cannot be, as magical as this season's, because seedings will keep the heavy hitters apart. All the more reason, then, to bend the knee and bow the head before today's combatants, both of whom were confronted with the fires of hell from the outset and somehow emerged on the other side.
Much of the knowledgeable money will be riding on Munster. Ninety per cent of the supporters in Cardiff will have made the journey from Limerick or Cork and they will scream like banshees from start to finish. More importantly still, Declan Kidney is in the happy position of having a full-strength combination at his disposal. About to head onwards and upwards as the new coach of Ireland, Kidney could name the entire Munster pack for his first international and sleep easy. They are quite some unit when the force is with them, and pretty damned handy when it isn't.
Toulouse, on the other hand, are in bits. Some of those bits have been pieced back together in time for this contest – Byron Kelleher, the All Blacks' scrum-half at last year's World Cup, is just about fit to start, while the brilliant centre Florian Fritz is more or less able to take a seat on the bench – but with the likes of Vincent Clerc and Clément Poitrenaud still hors de combat, they are struggling for back-line balance.
Yesterday, the Toulouse coach Guy Noves – a high achiever in the grand tradition of Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela, if immeasurably more combustible than either of his revered predecessors – described the current campaign as "the hardest the club has ever had to negotiate". However, he also pointed out that despite the body count, his side have reached the knock-out stage of the French Championship as well as the Heineken final. They may be on the collective equivalent of one leg, but that leg is far from the worst.
Kidney, ever wary, has been talking in terms of the "ultimate contest" – not as a means of getting his excuses in first, but in genuine admiration for the opposition. "We are under no illusions about this," he said. "Everyone models themselves on Toulouse, their passion and their skill. It doesn't get any easier, this competition, but it's a privilege to be involved."
The Frenchmen have made two changes to the starting line-up that did for London Irish in last month's semi-final at Twickenham. The Fijian back Maleli Kunavore comes into midfield alongside the arch-mesmeriser Yannick Jauzion, while Thierry Dusautoir replaces Yannick Nyanga in the back row. The last time Dusautoir played a game of rugby in Cardiff, seven months ago, he made 38 tackles in helping France find a way past New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-final. Anyone still doubting that this was the most astonishing individual performance of the season might like to know that the All Blacks made less than 40 between them.
For all David Wallace's many qualities, Munster do not have a loose forward nearly as good as Dusautoir. By the same yardstick, they do not have a centre like Jauzion or a hooker with William Servat's range of skills or a scrummager as powerful as Salvatore Perugini. But they have strength in other areas, from Doug Howlett on the wing to Paul O'Connell in the second row. More than that, they are a tight-knit unit with complete trust in each other. They win close games more often than anyone, they have a "16th man" in terms of support and they know what it is to beat Toulouse in a big Heineken Cup match, having prevailed in a semi-final in Bordeaux in 2000.
Mind you, Toulouse replied in kind three years later. It is impossible to slip more than a fag paper between them.
Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, L Mafi, R Tipoki, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy. Replacements: F Sheahan, T Buckley, M O'Driscoll, D Ryan, P Stringer, P Warwick, K Earls.
Toulouse: C Heymans; M Médard, M Kunavore, Y Jauzion, Y Donguy; J-B Elissalde, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat, S Perugini, F Pelous, P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir, S Sowerby. Replacements: A Vernet Basualdo, J-B Poux, R Millo-Chluski, Y Nyanga, F Fritz, M Ahotaeiloa, V Courrent.Reuse content