Gulf with elite exposed as Racing pump up the volume

Gulf with elite exposed as Racing pump up the volume
Munster's Peter O’Mahony dejected after the Guinness PRO14 Ulster vs Munster game. Credit: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo.

As the decibels of La Défense Arena’seardrum-crushing sound system kicked up another notch to drown out the ‘Fields of Athenry’ on Sunday afternoon, there could not have been a more apt signifier of how the money men are dominating the conversation in European club rugby.

That Racing 92 were slowly beginning to dismantle Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup hopes for another season on the field below with devastating brilliance as the clock wound down in Paris did not seem to be good enough for the powers that be at this marvel of an indoor arena.

La Défense Arena has a rugby team to be proud of, a well-coached collection of some of the world’s most exciting players, expensively assembled from around the world by Racing 92 owner Jacky Lorenzetti. What it does not have is the groundswell of support that can turn a rich club into a great one.

A great club would have embraced the large numbers of travelling support and enabled a cracking atmosphere that only enhances the spectator experience at sporting events.

A rich club merely flicks a switch, turns up the volume and crushes any noise of which it does not approve, with the ease its team moved through the gears after 65 minutes of stubborn resistance from Munster to power to a thoroughly deserved 39-22 victory.

Kudos, though, to Racing for securing top spot in Pool 4 and most likely a home quarter-final if they can win at Saracens next Sunday.

Do not rule that out, with former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast, Racing’s attack coach, promising the Parisians will be travelling to London at full strength, their eyes firmly on European glory.

A Racing win could also keep the door ajar for Munster to defy the odds and sneak into the last eight at Saracens’ expense as a best runner-up, provided it does the business at home to winless Ospreys at the same time in the early kick-off on Sunday.

The Thomond Park fixture is not a dead rubber but the outlook does look bleak for Johann van Graan’s men, who must not only claim second place behind Racing by overcoming the three-point gap to Saracens but also rely on results elsewhere on the round-six fixture list.

Perhaps Munster should be careful what they wish for. Scraping through to the knockout stages will most likely hand them the eighth seeding and a trip to the top seeds for the quarters and one wonders what the impact would be if a visit to Leinster was the upshot. Dare one say that could be counter-productive to the long-term optimism that stirs within the southern province?

There is a conviction within Munster that with Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree now on van Graan’s coaching ticket, the playing squad and the gameplan it is asked to implement are trending in the right direction. Captain Peter O’Mahony spoke on Sunday evening of the qualities that exist at Munster that can help bridge the financial gap to Europe’s top table.

Some of those are undoubtedly those elements in the province’s DNA that allow it to punch above its weight, the Munster spirit, its support and heritage.

O’Mahony also cites the talent currently coming through the academy but acknowledged it had to be backboned by astute signings from outside.

Still to be confirmed but widely assumed to be done deals, the arrivals of South African World Cup-winning duo, lock RG Snyman and centre Damian de Allende this summer would only enhance the current mix.

Head coach van Graan knows there are more immediate fixes needed, however. Munster’s current run of poor form, just two wins from eight matches since the bonus-point victory at Ospreys in Champions Cup round one, have derailed early-season momentum.

Defeats to Leinster, Saracens, and Racing in three of their last four outings represent a reality check that Munster have some way to go reach the same level as Europe’s top teams, in terms of on-field decision-making, skill execution, and strength in depth.

The Guinness PRO14 losses at home to Edinburgh and at Ulster were more alarming. In a crowded Conference B, Munster can ill afford to finish anywhere other than first or face yet another away semi-final at Conference A’s runaway leaders Leinster and another difficult pool draw for next season’s Champions Cup.

“That’s massively important,” van Graan said on Sunday night in Paris.

“The previous two years we got to semi-finals away against Leinster in the RDS and we have got to try and avoid that. The only way you can avoid that is to top the pool.

“So there is a lot of rugby left in the PRO14, there are 11 rounds left. So I guess the answer to that is you have to top your conference if you want to get to a final as the seedings become easier.” Failure to achieve that ambition last season has helped dump Munster in the position they now find themselves having suffered in Europe alongside Racing and defending champions Saracens.

The draw for the Champions Cup comes from the Guinness PRO14, so the day the draw came out we knew it was an incredibly difficult pool playing the champions home and away, then Racing are an incredibly good side, especially here — they’ve never lost a home game in the Champions Cup and I think they’re unbeaten in the last 14.

“So we always knew it was going to be a tough pool with small moments but this is why it’s a brilliant competition, it’s small moments.

“The Racing game where we had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it, which would have made a big difference in the context of the pool.”

However stiff a challenge van Graan’s men have posed the big guns in Europe this season, their failure to make the most of those chances he referred to hasexposed the gulf that existsbetween them and the current elite.

It is a vicious circle from which Munster have to break out or they will keep on being silenced.

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