The opening European home game of the season is upon us and what a fine time it would be for Munster’s developing team and game plan to click into place.
The first full campaign under head coach Johann van Graan has gradually built up a head of steam as quality new signings get up to speed and existing international frontliners re-integrate following delayed pre seasons.
There are still one or two to return, most notably Conor Murray and Chris Farrell but van Graan has seen in the past three weeks or so the emergence of an extremely solid and confident outfit.
A yo-yo start to 2018-19 saw Munster sweep past weak visiting teams from the Cheetahs and Ospreys at home and struggle on the road in Glasgow and Cardiff.
A record nine-try rout of another second-string away side in Ulster in the Guinness PRO14 has been the foundation stone for more positive formline, turning into an encouraging performance in defeat to double winners Leinster at the Aviva a fortnight ago.
Off the back of that, Munster defied expectations and held their own in their Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2 opener last Saturday, earning a well-deserved 10-10 draw at Sandy Park, the fortress home of the English Premiership league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
That van Graan and captain Peter O’Mahony returned home from Devon disappointed to have left an away victory behind them says much about the direction this Munster team is travelling as they head into today’s round two clash with old foes Gloucester at Thomond Park.
Last week’s encounter on the road was indeed one Munster could have rather than should have won against an equally rock-solid Exeter Chiefs side with a heavyweight pack and a potent backline.
The visitors had their chances both into a fierce wind in the first half and with it at their backs in the second but only managed to convert one into a try despite enjoying the greater share of possession and territory.
A knock-on here or turnover there and all the good work was undone as the tryline beckoned.
Against Leinster seven days earlier it had been a similar story, although victory had not looked likely, but the overriding impression has been that with Joey Carbery now pulling the strings at fly-half and benefiting from the platform delivered by a powerful forward pack inspired by O’Mahony and spearheaded by Tadhg Beirne, this is a team poised to cut loose.
“It would be brilliant to use all of our opportunities in one game,” van Graan said this week, reflecting on chances not taken. “And converting in that last part of (the field). You just have to look at all the European games, it’s small margins. Small margins win and lose you games.”
O’Mahony, a standout performer so far this season since his return to the fold, is of a similar mindset and the captain is confident he leads a team that is starting to click.
“It certainly is. We’ve played a bit together now over the last couple of months. There’s been some good performances, some poor ones, and we’ve learned a few lessons. We’re sharpening up all the time and this is going to be the biggest performance of the year so far.”
The arrival of Gloucester in Limerick for the first time since 2013-14, a near sell-out crowd of 23,000 and a Munster team with confidence rising and a determination to flick the switch and hit top gear all points to a rip-roaring
Champions Cup occasion at Thomond Park this lunchtime, when Munster’s European story will unfold on terrestrial, free-to-air television for the first time since 2006, this time around on Virgin Media One.
Gloucester head into round two on top of the pool following an opening home win over French champions Castres, when opinion-dividing fly-half Danny Cipriani excelled on home turf at Kingsholm, kicking 14 of his side’s points in a 19-14 win that saw the Cherry and Whites survive a late wobble to hang on for rain-soaked victory.
Needless to say, O’Mahony will prepare his team for another stiff challenge. “We’re expecting a huge performance as usual in the European Cup, another incredible side with incredible talent across the board, their ability to spread the ball, hold the ball. You speak about Exeter’s ability to hold the ball, Gloucester aren’t that far behind if they’re behind them at all, with their ability to hold it.
So, their ability to strike wide and their pack, their maul is a huge weapon for them, across the board it’s going to be a massive game
The respect is mutual with van Graan’s fellow South African and head coaching counterpart Johan Ackermann talking up Munster’s attributes while admitting little could be read into last weekend’s weather-affected performances.
“I think the guys can take a lot of confidence from the fact that, despite the wet conditions, we still played decently,” Ackermann said. “We did miss some scoring opportunities but, if the weather is poor in Munster, that was a good test for us.
“Munster had a dry day down at Exeter but a very strong wind which can be worse to play in. So, it’s difficult to read too much tactically into that game. The one thing they did show is they can keep hold of the ball, going beyond 25 phases at times, and they are a resilient side.
“To go down to Exeter and keep them at bay shows that they are very strong defensively and it’s going to be a massive challenge.
“They’ve been very successful in the past in this competition but, on the pitch, we control our own destiny. We have to go out there and give it everything and see where it goes.”
Munster are in a good place and should ensure it goes not very far at all. As the home side, they can show exactly the direction they are heading in, whatever the weather.
Did you know?
■ This will be the eighth meeting between Munster and Gloucester; the Irish province have won five of the previous seven.
■ Munster are on a nine-game winning run at Thomond Park, their best streak in the competition since a 17-game sequence between 2007/08 and 2011/12.
■ Gloucester have picked up two wins from their last three visits to Ireland in the tournament, beating Ulster and Connacht, but losing to Munster in the 2013/14 season.
■ Gloucester are looking to win their opening two games of a European Cup campaign for the first time since 2007/08.