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Munster have history on their side for Paris mission


By Alan Quinlan

Barely anyone gave us a chance before we got on the plane. We were over the hill, according to Stuart Barnes - a bunch of weary men blinded by past glories and heading straight into a French ambush.

Perpignan had not lost a European tie on home soil for five years, and the week before they probably should have beaten us at Thomond Park, a late penalty from ROG clinching a one-point win, our second victory from our opening three pool games.

The group was finely balanced but the general feeling was we were about to be knocked off our perch and the reigning French champions would make it 17 European wins on the trot at their Catalan cauldron, the Stade Aime Giral.

Our form towards the end of 2009 had been inconsistent at best, four losses from eight Celtic League games, including a humiliating 30-0 drubbing by Leinster at the RDS.

But at the same time, we were the reigning champions in that competition, and just 18 months previously had been top of the pile in Europe.

Perpignan, who were then being steered by now France boss Jacques Brunel, were a formidable outfit, and had more than two converted tries to spare against us in both of our previous visits - in 1998 and 2003 - to the last French city before you hit the Spanish border.

But that Munster team were never paralysed by fear. We were a dangerous bunch with our backs against the wall. You wrote us off at your peril.

We were given many a French lesson over the years but by that stage we had accumulated away victories against Colomiers, Toulouse, Castres, Stade Francais and Bourgoin.

Twenty-year-old Perpignan flanker Yoann Vivalda naively compared us to an academy team after our Limerick smash and grab, but he found himself uncomfortably trying to digest those words only days later.

Paul O'Connell, David Wallace and Paul Warwick were immense but it was one of those days where the entire team stood up. Perpignan expected to absolutely batter us up front but we blew them off the park.

Doug Howlett's 80th-minute bonus-point try made the upset victory all the sweeter.

Players, coaches and fans may change but the fearless culture at the province has remained.

The history of success and tales of famous wins in England and France highlight the responsibility placed upon those wearing that Munster jersey.

There is a duty to follow what has gone before you and, in equal measure, past triumphs offer great inspiration. Munster teams never travel in hope. The expectation is always there.

While Johann van Graan's side face a daunting test against Racing in Paris tomorrow, there is plenty of room for optimism. And if they do succeed, it would rank alongside the province's greatest victories on French soil.

Racing may be swatting enemies aside with ease at the moment, and already turning the futuristic U Arena into a 4G fortress, but this Munster side, despite the odd wobble this season, have already proven they can raise their game for the big occasion.

If they set the terms of engagement, sticking to Munster's traditional formula for success, they are a match for anyone in Europe, home or away.

Leicester may not be the force they once were but the manner in which Munster bullied them around Welford Road indicates the maturity and collective will of this current Red army.

Similarly, having destroyed Racing in Paris just 12 months ago, and winning on Glasgow's artificial surface just a week later, Van Graan's side don't have to spend too much time rummaging for the winning template.

France remains a very difficult place to get a result, but it's nearly 20 years since Munster's first win in Gallic territory, and 18 since Brian O'Driscoll's third try at the Stade de France really burst their bubble.

The mindset of Irish sides heading across has completely shifted and a game in France is just another away match, no longer a ticket to an almost-certain humbling.

Just how we managed to change that attitude remains a source of intrigue and is a regular topic of discussion any time I meet some of the French guys who saw the Irish sides suddenly start to arrive for battle with their heads up and chests out.

Racing may be able to call on world-class players such as Virimi Vakatawa, Maxime Machenaud and the remarkably-gifted Leone Nakarawa - although the absence of probably the greatest fly-half of all time in Dan Carter is a significant blow - but Munster will not be lacking in quality or belief.

The province have won 12 times in France from 32 attempts and if they can win the forward battle tomorrow they will have a great chance.

Munster have prevailed in their last four games against Racing and the two most recent victories were built on a ferocious effort by the pack.

Funnily enough, last year's triumph in the previously postponed Paris game, against a backdrop of at-times overwhelming emotion, was one of Donnacha Ryan's best games.

It will be a strange day for my fellow Tipp man as he prepares to turn the tables on a team so close to his heart.

For a man who epitomised what wearing the Munster shirt was all about for so many years, the prospect of attempting to wobble his home province's Champions Cup campaign will feel unnatural.

It will also be a strange occasion for Simon Zebo, playing for the first time on what will soon become his home ground, against his future employers.

Van Graan's charges at the very least will want to return to Limerick for their final pool game against Castres with a losing bonus point.

Essentially, they need to produce another classic Munster performance in Europe.

"We weren't ever trying to be anything other than the real Munster," O'Connell said after our momentous Perpignan victory in 2009.

Why change a winning formula?

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