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Crunch time for Munster

By Niall Crozier

The hopes of having three of Ireland's provinces in the Heineken Cup semi-finals en route to the what would have been the second all-Irish final in three years proved to have been somewhat optimistic.

Ulster's elimination in the most heartbreaking circumstances on Saturday night at Ravenhill was followed by Leinster's ignominious exit the following afternoon in France's Massif Central.

So now it falls to Munster to maintain Ireland's superb record in this magnificent competition following their impressive six-tries demolition of four-times winners, Toulouse, at Thomond Park.

Their reward – if that be the appropriate noun – for that awesome quarter-final annihilation of the Guy Novès-coached, Patricio Albacete-captained losers is a much more daunting date with Toulon in the penultimate round at Marseille's intimidating Stade Vélodrome.

Toulon, the holders, will be aiming for a place in their second successive Heineken Cup final, a remarkable statistic given that they first qualified for the competition in 2010-11.

They had, however, been building towards a place at the top table for some time, witness appearances in the Amlin Challenge Cup final in May 2010 and May 2012.

True, they lost those to Cardiff Blues and Biarritz Olympique respectively. But despite the disappointment of losing two finals, clearly they learned much from the experience.

Those hard lessons have stood them in very good stead with last season's 16-15 victory over much-fancied Top 14 rivals, ASM Clermont Auvergne, in the Dublin shoot-out for the Heineken Cup providing irrefutable proof of the fact.

Should Toulon beat Munster in Marseille on Sunday, 27 April, that would see them book a place in a fourth European final in five years.

If, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, money can't buy you love, it would appear it can sure as hell buy you success in rugby. Owner and club president Mourad Boudjellal has poured millions of his personal fortune – attributable to the success of his comic-book distribution company, Soleil Productions – into transforming Toulon.

A second-tier French club when he took over, his investment in recruiting marquee signings like Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha, Martin Castrogiovanni, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Andrew Sheridan, Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell has borne fruit.

Now Cardiff, Wales and Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny is on his way to Stade Felix Mayol, the annual salary of £395,000 having proved too tempting to reject. He has enlisted for the next two seasons, with the option of a third.

Munster do not begin to match that level of fiscal fire-power. But they do have something Monsieur Boudjellal and his host of hired hands cannot match – 19 seasons worth of pedigree.

Only once in the past 16 of those have they failed to reach the knock-out stages. And on April 27 they will create a tournament record by appearing in an 11th Heineken Cup semi-final.

Even Leinster – albeit that they have three tournament wins to Munster's brace – cannot boast anything comparable; their record is 11 quarter-finals and seven semi-finals.

All of which leaves Ulster playing catch-up; quarter-finalists on five occasions, semi-finalists twice, runners-up once, ditto champions.

Had they had 15 players on the pitch against Saracens, I have no doubt that they would have made it to a third semi-final and, paired with Clermont at the Aviva Stadium, to the final, too. Would they have won it? We'll never know.

We could spend a long time debating the likelihood, but it's neither here nor there.

Unpalatable though it be, the Holy Grail of a Ravenhill quarter-final – and the quite brilliant resultant support of the home crowd – was insufficient to outweigh the handicap imposed when French referee Jerome Garces red-carded full-back Jared Payne after four minutes.

Add the injury-enforced loss of Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar and the burden became impossible. In such circumstances it was and remains truly remarkable that Ulster took the pick of England's club sides all the way to the wire.

Twelve months earlier, when they faced the same opponents in a Twickenham quarter-final, Ulster were dealt an unkind hand too, injuries having robbed them of time in which to prepare properly. Coach Mark Anscombe has always maintained that the April 2013 quarter-final came a week too early.

Next season, of course, Ulster will be without Johann Muller and John Afoa. Those are two huge jerseys to fill, make no mistake – World Cup winners don't grow on trees. They will be without Tom Court, too. One of their unsung heroes, his departure to join London Irish leaves another massive gap.

So let us hope Ulster recruit well. And let us hope that next year, finally, they get the rub of the green all winners require. Meanwhile, let us be magnanimous in wishing Munster well in the south of France on April 27 and hopefully in Cardiff on May 24.

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