With two big inter-provincial victories in the bag and a miraculous return to fitness for a key midfield influencer, Munster could not pitch up at Kingsholm tonight in better form for their pivotal Heineken Champions Cup clash with Gloucester.
Yet, after a campaign of performances that have varied in quality throughout, Johann van Graan’s squad will need to be the sum of all their parts if they are to get the away victory that will be vital to progressing from Pool 2 into the knockout stages.
With a relatively new head coach in his first full season, Munster have proven very much a work in progress over the last few months. There have been flashes of brilliance, encouraging displays from summer signings, and positive noises throughout, but the feelgood factor has often been tempered by interjections of frustratingly poor passages of play and the squandering of gilt-edged opportunities.
Many of the negatives revealed themselves in round four of this European competition, when Munster were not only bullied physically by a Castres side allowed to step over the line of acceptable behaviour by referee Wayne Barnes, but also harmed themselves with the number of points they passed up, either by poor decision-making or sloppy execution.
The result was a 13-12 defeat that, combined with Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs sharing the spoils over their two December encounters, has blown the group wide open with two games to play, and piled the pressure on pool leaders Munster going to Gloucester’s most archetypal of old-school, English grounds.
With just four points separating Munster at the top and Gloucester in fourth place, the Irish province really needs to secure the away victory tonight they should have returned with from France four weeks ago if they are to have any leeway going into the final-round clash at home to Exeter Chiefs.
As those two interpro victories suggest, however, Munster are trending in the right direction. The December 29 Thomond Park win over Leinster was important as a turning point on a night when the performance came second to the composure and even tempers showcased by the home side, as the European and PRO14 double winners committed disciplinary self-destruction. Last Saturday’s victory over Connacht was significant in a couple of ways. Firstly, Munster won away, something they had managed only twice previously this season and, secondly, they did it with some style in attack, securing a bonus point with four well-crafted and varied tries to outlast a strong and resurgent neighbour in their own backyard at the Sportsground.
It was the best Munster attacking performance of the season and, having previously witnessed the signs that it had been coming, van Graan was more than satisfied things had clicked into place in Galway.
“Once we brought their wings up and isolated their full-back, I thought we pinned them down in their 22 and it was pivotal against Connacht, because of their lineout threat. Most of their lineouts were inside their own 22, they could run it, but they kicked it out most of the time to us and I thought our maul came into the game and what we did off the maul was really good. We had a balance between kicking it in behind and actually playing, as well, and I thought Joey’s try (having switched to full-back) was a good example of that.
“That was the best that we’ve executed inside our opponent’s 22 for a while. I thought we were really direct, whilst having options off nine, 10 and 12. Pete’s try was a good example of that, going through the phases, having real patience and, if you just look at Earlsy and Andrew Conway working off the ball, that was really good, even Tadhg’s line.
That comes with continuity and putting a focus on it and we’re really happy with the four tries we scored.”
If that continuity can be extended for another week, it will go a long way to Munster scoring the win they need at Kingsholm tonight and pulling Ireland centre Chris Farrell off the treatment table and back into the 13 jersey when van Graan named his team yesterday was the proverbial rabbit from the hat.
Gloucester will welcome back playmaker Danny Cipriani and exciting young wing Ollie Thorley from injury tonight, but the resurrection of Farrell after all the gloom and doom that described the bang he took to his right knee in the final play of the Connacht game bodes very well for Munster.
Farrell has only played three times this season since returning from a serious knee injury sustained on Ireland duty last March, but the 25-year-old has come back looking very sharp and his forward’s frame, coupled with excellent hands and footwork, will pose Gloucester some serious problems in midfield.
“He’s just such a big threat, whether he’s running any form of line or hands or anything, he sticks at least two players, because, what is he? He’s 6’5 and 110, 115 kilos, something like that,” said full-back Mike Haley of Farrell this week. “You need a couple of boys to stop someone like that, don’t you.
No one should underestimate Gloucester on home turf. They have a potentially lethal back three and a
dynamic back-five in their pack of forwards, all of whom can cause plenty of damage in open play and in the collision, never mind the set-piece.
Yet, Munster momentum is gathering and a strong matchday 23 has what it takes to secure another important European victory.
GLOUCESTER: T Hudson; C Sharples, B Twelvetrees, M Atkinson, O Thorley; D Cipriani, C Braley; J Hohneck, H Walker, F Balmain; E Slater, G Grobler; F Mostert, L Ludlow, B Morgan - captain.
Replacements: F Marais, A Seville, C Knight, F Clarke, G Evans, B Vellacott, O Williams, H Trinder
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: R Marshall, J Loughman, J Ryan, B Holland, A Botha, A Mathewson, T Bleyendaal, D Goggin.
REFEREE: Romain Poite (France).