Munster have always performed better when they have a cause and a chip on the shoulder. One can only imagine just how quiet their plane home from Glasgow was last Friday night after conceding 51 points in a game they knew in advance they had to win to have any chance of making the Pro12 play-offs. The question now is, can they carry that hurt into tomorrow’s contest and take all the frustration, disappointment and shortcomings in a challenging season out on their hosts?
Incredibly, Munster have only managed to win four of their 12 competitive fixtures on the road this season across the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup — that doesn’t auger well for tomorrow. In the circumstances, one can understand why Conor O’Shea was reluctant to shift this contest to Twickenham, despite the financial windfall, and keep it at their the more intimate home at The Stoop.
Munster are still capable of producing a one-off display of belligerence, brutality and defiance and that is exactly how they need to approach this one. In their final two pool games against Edinburgh and Racing Metro, they reined in their desire to go wide and lateral with a more physical and direct approach. That is exactly what they need to do tomorrow as if they continue with a loose patterned approach against this Harlequins side, they could get stuffed. To win this one, Munster must revert to type. You can be certain that is exactly what’s going to happen. The only question remaining, will it be enough?
Under Conor O’Shea, Harlequins have made massive strides since they last encountered an Irish side at the quarter-final stage at The Stoop. With Dean Richards at the helm, Quins let themselves down that day in the Bloodgate affair. O’Shea, appointed in the aftermath of the fallout that followed that game against Leinster, has done a remarkable job in not only rebuilding the image of the club but also by delivering silverware in each of his three seasons there.
He is also a great innovator and not afraid to try things. Last weekend’s game against Gloucester saw the latest innovation when scrum-half Danny Care set up to feed a Harlequins scrum on the halfway line. Since the days of Webb Ellis himself, the scrum has always been fed through the channel on the loose-head side. However there is nothing in law that says it has to be done that way, only that the opposition scrum-half must also stand on the side of the feed. Was it any wonder therefore that confusion raged when Care sought to feed his scrum from the tight-head side with Gloucester scrum-half Dave Lewis standing in blissful ignorance on the other side?
What Harlequins were attempting to do was, by forcing the opposition scrum-half to follow Care, there would be one less defender on their loose- head side — the opposition scrum- half normally pushes out to cover the attacking team’s first receiver from that position.
The fact that the scrum collapsed and a reset called only added to the confusion. I have no doubt the Munster brains trust will have noted this latest innovation and will plan accordingly should Care attempt a repeat of this latest daring feat.
If this Harlequins pack are allowed the luxury of producing quick ball for their impressive back line, Munster will be in big trouble. The most worrying aspect of that abject defeat in Glasgow was the brittleness of Munster in the tackle. Anthony Foley has proved a resounding success as Ireland’s defence coach this season and was probably the only member of the national coaching ticket to emerge with reputation enhanced after the 6N. Therefore he must have been disgusted with the defensive capitulation in Scotstoun. This wasn’t even a failure in a defensive system, more an appalling display of flawed tackle technique by a number of individual Munster players.
For Munster to have any chance of winning tomorrow, their hunger and accuracy in the tackle must improve immeasurably. To aid their cause in defence, Munster must devise a way to slow down the delivery of Harlequins ball at the breakdown. They will also have to be razor sharp in defending the quick tap penalties that Danny Care has made his stock-in-trade and keep Harlequins on the back foot. With that in mind, the selection of Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony makes a lot of sense. If anything, Munster’s back row has more pace than their opposition with Nick Easter and Maurie Fa’asavalu selected to carry, with Chris Robshaw assigned the groundhog duties. If Munster can edge that battle, they will not only buy time for the defence but a chance of creating a surprise.