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Heineken Cup final lowdown

HEINEKEN CUP FINAL
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Date: Sat, 24 May Kick-off: 1700 BST
Coverage: Live on Sky Sports, BBC Sport website and Radio 5 Live

By Bryn Palmer

This year's Heineken Cup final brings together two sides, Munster and Toulouse, who have reached the knock-out stages of the tournament on more occasions than anyone else.

In the 13-year history of Europe's showpiece club competition, both have progressed to the quarter-finals or better on 10 occasions, with the Irish province doing so successively in each of the last 10 years.

Q: SO THESE TWO ARE OLD HANDS AT THIS FINAL LARK THEN?

You could say that. Toulouse, France's rugby royalty, are preparing for a record fifth final.

They have triumphed in three of their previous four - beating Cardiff (21-18 after extra-time) in the inaugural final in 1996, Perpignan (22-17) in 2003 and Stade Francais (18-12 after extra-time) in 2005. They also lost a memorable final with Wasps (20-27) in 2004.

Toulouse captain Fabien Pelous holds the Heineken Cup aloft in 2005
Toulouse have won the trophy three times, the last time in 2005
Six players involved on Saturday - Yannick Jauzion, Fabien Pelous, William Servat, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Finau Maka and Jean Bouilhou - played in those last three finals. It would have been eight, but Clement Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc are injured.

Munster will also have at least four players - Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes and David Wallace - with three previous Heineken Cup finals to their name.

They made it third time lucky in 2006 when they overcame Biarritz (23-19), following a controversial defeat by Leicester (9-15) in 2002 and a tortuous loss (8-9) to Northampton in 2000.

Q: ANY "PREVIOUS" BETWEEN THEM DOWN THE YEARS?

Oh yes, although the first meeting can probably be discounted. Toulouse trounced Munster 60-19 in a pool match back in 1996/97, when the Heineken Cup was in its infancy. The last two, though, are more of an indicator as to what is likely to unfold on Saturday.

In the 2000 semi-finals, Munster pulled off one of their greatest, possibly greatest ever, Heineken Cup win at Bordeaux's Stade Chaban-Delmas, coming back from a half-time deficit to beat Toulouse 31-25 in a sensational contest. Even Hayes scored a try.

Three years later, also in the semi-finals, they almost pulled it off again, in front of another partisan crowd at Le Stadium in Toulouse. But despite leading 12-6 approaching the end, a converted Frederic Michalak try saw the hosts sneak home 13-12.

Q: SO WHO ARE THE GUIDING LIGHTS BEHIND THESE TEAMS?

Toulouse coach Guy Noves is rugby's answer to Sir Alex Ferguson - a passionate touchline prowler, furious gesticulator and confrontational character, whether railing against the rugby politicos in Paris, or the heavy-handed police who frog-marched him out of Murrayfield after the 2005 final when he was attempting to climb the fences and bring his son onto the field to join the celebrations.

Toulouse coach Guy Noves is escorted out of Murrayfield by police in 2005
Noves was furious with his treatment after the 2005 final
In his 15 years in charge, Noves has led the club to seven French championships, three Heineken Cups and two French Cups, and his dedication is legendary.

Before their quarter-final with Cardiff Blues in April, Noves was hit by a Mercedes while cycling in Toulouse, and sent hurtling clean through the windscreen. Knocked unconscious and airlifted to hospital, he was back on the touchline 48 hours later.

Munster coach Declan Kidney is a far less conspicuous character, noted for shunning the spotlight. Saturday will be his farewell before taking over as Ireland's new coach, belated recognition for the former schoolteacher's much-praised man-management style, motivational skills and proven track record.

He has led them to all three of their previous Heineken finals, the first two in his first spell as coach before an unhappy two years as Eddie O'Sullivan's assistant with Ireland. He briefly flirted with Welsh region the Newport-Gwent Dragons and spent a season in charge of Leinster before returning to Munster and leading them to their 2006 triumph.

Q: WHAT ABOUT ON THE PITCH, WHO'S IN CHARGE?

Two second-row warriors who should have a battle royal in the midst of the mayhem. The venerable Fabien Pelous, France's most-capped player with 118, is approaching the end of a great career, and has already lifted the Heineken Cup twice, in 2003 and 2005.

Not quite the force of old, and unlikely to last the distance in Cardiff, but his status at Toulouse is such that Noves would not contemplate starting a game of such magnitude without the 34-year-old totem.

Munster captain Paul O'Connell in their Heineken Cup semi-final win over Saracens
Paul O'Connell leads by example
"He has been an outstanding professional and role model for anybody who wants to make a career in professional rugby," says the coach.

The same could apply to Paul O'Connell, Munster's answer to Martin Johnson. A ferocious competitor nicknamed "Keano" by team-mate Ronan O'Gara in tribute to another revered son of Munster, the red-head lock has been colossal in most of their recent achievements.

But O'Connell, a national swimming champion as a youth, has endured a frustrating season, a miserable World Cup with Ireland followed by a back injury which kept him out for four months. Since his return in March, he has looked a like a man on a mission. Toulouse be warned.

Q: AND THE REST OF THE CAST? WHO'LL BE PLAYING THE LEAD ROLES?

Toulouse are littered with stars, even without their potent wing Vincent Clerc, sadly absent with a serious knee injury. There is full-back Cedric Heymans, prone to the odd howler but a devastating counter-attacker, the emerging wing Maxime Medard, the Rolls-Royce centre Yannick Jauzion, the impish Jean-Baptiste Elissalde at stand-off and the warrior former All Blacks scrum-half Byron Kelleher.

Up front, they also pack a very big punch, with an international front row, the dynamic Argentine lock Patricio Albacete, the marauding flanker Thierry Dusautoir, not to mention the Tongan force of nature Finau Maka - the definition of an "impact" replacement.

For Munster, the homespun collective is everything, honest toil and hard yards a measure of your worth. Which is not to say they lack their own high-class operators.

Munster wing Doug Howlett in action in their Heineken Cup semi-final win over Saracens
Doug Howlett adds a dashing presence to Munster's attack
They provide seven-eighths of Ireland's pack, with hooker Jerry Flannery and number eight Denis Leamy rumbustious ball-carriers, the tireless Donncha O'Callaghan a superb ally to O'Connell and flanker David Wallace a deft footballer and link-man.

As well as Ronan O'Gara's peerless ability to control a game with his boot, Munster now boast an attacking threat previously lacking, largely due to a trio of Kiwis. The incisive probing of Rua Tipoki and the power of New Zealand-raised Tongan Lifeimi Mafi form a potent centre combination, while the jet-heeled Doug Howlett scored more tries for the All Blacks (49) than anyone in history. Enough said.

Q: SO WHO'S GOING TO WIN THEN?

A tough call. Toulouse are marginal favourites with the bookies, and have the individual talent, collective power and big-match mentality to claim their fourth European crown. Then again, they played some of the best rugby ever seen in the competition in the 2004 final, and still ended up losing to Wasps.

Toulouse looked vulnerable in the semi-finals against a London Irish side prepared to attack them out wide, when their less-heralded defensive qualities dug them out of a hole.

606: DEBATE
All-out attack is not usually Munster's modus operandi, but they too must be prepared to vary the point of attack as well as test the defensive abilities of Elissalde - a diminutive scrum-half playing at 10 - in the fly-half channel.

By the same token, if Toulouse touch the dizzying heights of which they are capable, a 10 or 15-minute spell might do for Munster. But if the Irish province keep it tight and there is only a score in it heading into the final quarter, a sea-of-red crowd expected to be 80% in their favour could again be a major factor.

In the final two years ago, during a stop in play, the sight of 20,000 fans sardined into Limerick's O'Connell Street on the big screen at the Millennium Stadium galvanized the Munster players and fans alike, the latter roaring the former on to finish off the job against Biarritz in a frenzied din. Another raucous atmosphere will prevail in Cardiff on Saturday, but who will be shouting loudest at the end?




see also
Munster v Toulouse (Sat)
21 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Europe's rugby giants
22 May 08 |  Rugby Union
The secret of Munster's success
22 May 08 |  Munster
Saracens 16-18 Munster
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
London Irish 15-21 Toulouse
26 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Gloucester 3-16 Munster
05 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Toulouse 41-17 Blues
06 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Munster 23-19 Biarritz
20 May 06 |  European Club
Stade Francais 12-18 Toulouse
22 May 05 |  European Club
Noves angry at police treatment
22 May 05 |  European Club
Wasps 27-20 Toulouse
23 May 04 |  European Club
Toulouse regain European crown
24 May 03 |  European Club
Toulouse edge out Munster
26 Apr 03 |  European Club
Tigers retain European Cup
25 May 02 |  European


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