Oyonnax coach and former Munster star Mike Prendergast
Colm Kinsella talks to former Munter scrum half Mike Prendergast about the challenge of defeating Toulon
FORMER Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast is better placed than most to appreciate the challenge French Top 14 giants Toulon will pose to the province’s Champions Cup ambitions this weekend.
Limerick's Prendergast saw his Oyonnax side stun Toulon in a crucial Top 14 fixture on St Patrick’s Day to keep their hopes of avoiding relegation to the Pro D2 very much alive.
Prendergast is the current attack and backs coach with Oyonnax, who have given themselves a real shot at Top 14 survival following an impressive run of four wins in their last five league fixtures.
Prendergast, who spent a period playing in France with Bourgoin, has been coaching in France since 2013 when he joined initially joined Grenoble as skills coach.
He subsequently progressed into a role as backs coach, working alongside Bernard Jackman, before moving to Oyonnax last summer.
Reflecting on their precious 29-26 victory over Toulon, Prendergast told Leader Sport: "Toulon came fully loaded to us. We showed unbelievable character that day.
“They have world class players across the park, but especially in their backline. It’s as strong as any international backline I know.
“In their squad, you have the likes of their French scrum-half Sébastien Tillous-Borde, the young French out-half Anthony Belleau, another international 10 in Francois Trinh-Duc, All-Black centre Ma'a Nonu, another All-Black in Malakai Fekitoa, the power and pace of winger Semi Radradra from rugby league, Josua Tuisova, a massive winger with serious X factor and Chris Ashton at full-back.
“Our game with Toulon was very close the whole way through. We got into their ‘22’ in the last two minutes, knocked on the ball, managed to push them off the scrum, got through a few phases and scored near the end. The lads showed great character and belief.
“I think we played with smarts as well. We knew that inside our own half we would have to kick and kick contestables.
“You can't give them any loose ball, because they have so many threats across the park. We kicked in our own half to try and win the ball back and in their half we knew we had to hold onto the ball.
“When we did we managed to pick up a couple of penalties, they were a small bit indisciplined and we were very disciplined with the ball, managed to keep the scoreboard ticking and stay with them.
“We knew if it was near the end our bench has been doing quite well in the last few week, everyone is hungry to play, and we knew the bench could make a difference and it did, especially up front.
Last weekend’s defeat to Pau means Oyonnax are bottom of the Top 14 table, but with just three points separating the bottom four sides there is everything to play for with four rounds of regular season fixtures to come.
Prendergast believes Munster’s highly rated kicking game will be a key weapon for the home side in Saturday’s sold-out quarter-final fixture.
The former Young Munster Director of Rugby believes Toulon’s main threat will come from their backline along with their powerful South African number eight Duane Vermeulen.
Asked where Toulon’s main threat lies, Prendergast said: "It is actually their backline. I think Munster can go after them up front. I think there is an avenue to go after them up front definitely.
“From a player point of view, you can't look past Duane Vermeulen, their South African number eight, who is an outstanding player. It looks like he is going back home.
“He is coming towards the end of his career in France and I'm sure he will want to leave everything he can here.
“Their backs are dangerous, especially when you have Ma'a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa, and the two wingers and Chris Ashton in their back three.
“I know, fortunately for Munster, their kicking game is very strong and they are very good in the air. I'm sure that's an area that Munster will go after.
“When you kick short and go contestable, it gives them less of a threat to launch their counterattack and that is where they are so dangerous. They are world class players when they get a bit of space.
Vermeulen is as good a ball-carrying eight and you will see. Also exceptional on the ground.”
Prendergast says three-time winners of the Champions Cup, Toulon, will be placing plenty of emphasis on winning the Champions Cup again this season, especially with the strength in depth they possession their squad.
“Europe has to be a priority for them because of the squad they have. Their forwards coach is my ex-Director of Rugby in Grenoble, Fabrice Landreau.
“I was speaking to him and he said they were really looking forward to going to Thomond Park.
“I think they have shown that. Even when they went to the Scarlets in the last game in the pool stage.
“Scarlets are a very good side. If that game had gone on for another five minutes, I think Toulon would have come out on top. They showed good character from being behind on a wet cold night in Llanelli.
“They probably have dropped off from where they were three or four years ago, Wilkinson, Giteau, winning European Cups, it has changed.
“They have gone through something like five coaches in the last two years. They have a bit more stability now. They are in contention in the Top 14 and Champions Cup.
“They seem to, slowly but surely, be coming back to that winning mentality.
“This year there is a small bit more stability with Fabien Galthie gone in as head coach. I think in a year or two they will be stronger, from the point of view of team culture and stuff, but they have showed glimpses of that this year on the road.”
Toulon may have a star-studded squad, but Prendergast expects Munster to prevail, despite their lengthy injury list and the fact that three of their key players, Irish internationals Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander will be having their first outing with the side for more than two months.
“We have seen this in the past and I think Munster will lap it up, to be honest with you. Yes, there are quality players out injured, but you look at the three guys who are coming back in, you are talking world class players that are coming back from the high of winning a Grand Slam, such a big achievement. That will instil confidence straight away.
“They will give everyone a boost, they're going to bring back new energy.
“From the point of view integrating straight away, that won't be a problem. They have played so much rugby together.
“The Thomond Park factor is massive. I was there last year for the Toulouse game. They are a different side to Toulon, but I just think if Munster start well, they will grow and the crowd will grow.
“It will be a huge challenge, but I just think playing at home, Munster will come out on top.” Prendergast confidently concluded.