No matter where you look at present, it’s pretty difficult to avoid. Ireland against England, be it for club or country, is the only topic on the agenda. Time will tell whether or not the two leading contenders for this season’s Six Nations championship will both make it unbeaten to the last day of tournament to contest a Grand Slam showdown at the Aviva Stadium.
Before that however, the small matter of these mouthwatering Anglo-Irish, Champions Cup, back-to-back, clashes before Christmas. Leinster set the tone with their impressive, bonus point, win over old rivals Northampton Saints at Franklins Gardens on Friday night.
Munster’s form of late has been sensational but Leicester Tigers, who won both encounters in this competition at the same stage 12 months ago, provided the perfect gauge of progress made under the short but impressive guidance of new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Munster’s opening pool win over Glasgow Warriors was forged in the most emotionally wrought circumstances after the tragic passing and subsequent funeral of Anthony Foley only 24 hours earlier. Yet, in the most difficult of circumstances, not only did Munster deliver a thunderously committed and passionate display but also their most technically proficient for some time.
The challenge on Saturday was replicating that performance against a side who, historically at least, have never been discommoded in any way with the particular challenges associated with taking Munster on in Thomond Park.
Something had to give. Coming into this clash, Leicester had won five on the bounce, Munster six. Yet by half-time it was clear this Champions Cup Pool 1 game was all but over. Leading 19-0, this was a throwback to the days when Munster refused to be beaten at home, classic Munster, unyielding with and without the ball.
The variation and clinical execution produced in delivering four unanswered tries offers hope that the glory days of the past may not be as far away as they appeared when Leicester eased to a 19-31 win in the corresponding fixture this time last year, especially when it was clear this Tigers side bore nothing like the bite of its predecessor’s under Dean Richards or Martin Johnson.
The fact that all of Munster tries were finished by members of an increasingly impressive backline, with the soon departing Jaco Taute denied a hattrick when tackled without the ball leading to a penalty try, highlights a shift in emphasis. No longer are Munster dependent on the strength and quality of its line-out maul alone - even if it was utilised to good effect once again here - as a primary source of five-pointers.
Much of that is due to the effectiveness of the fast-developing half-back partnership of Conor Murray - in the form of his life - and the emergence of Tyler Bleyendaal as an out half of real authority and quality. Against Glasgow in his maiden Champions Cup voyage last October he was superb.
The question on everyone’s lips was could he reproduce that level of performance on a consistent basis or was he, like all those around him, inspired to reach unprecedented heights on a seminal day against Glasgow. He answered that emphatically on Saturday.
While the quality of his passing game was something that anyone who had tracked him while playing for the Crusaders was aware of, it is the variety and precision of his kicking game th
.at has stood out most in recent times. His excellence from placed balls has added a new dimension to Munster’s ability to convert penalties into points while the pinpoint accuracy of his cross-field kicks to Darren Sweetnam and Keith Earls has opened up a new attacking avenue in the wide, five metre channels. Sweetnam has been a revelation this season, the equivalent of a new signing while Earls also looks rejuvenated.
Leicester currently lie in fourth place in the Aviva Premiership with seven wins from ten outings to date yet Munster made them look distinctly average. Such was the pressure imposed right from the outset that Leicester failed to sustain any period of controlled possession and ended that opening period without a single incursion into the Munster twenty two. They were beaten in every facet of play.
Their indiscipline was highlighted by a penalty count of 8-3 in Munster’s favour over that period and by the final whistle Leicester had three players dispatched to the sin bin for warranted yellow cards. They were blown away by a masterclass from the Munster back row of CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell who generated countless turnovers between them and a total of ten by the final whistle.
When Toute scored to put Munster 26 points ahead on the 50-minute mark, the Leicester management accepted their fate and withdrew England scrum half Ben Youngs with an eye to salvaging something from next Saturday’s return fixture.
Tradition will demand that Leicester will be better for that return trip but, on the evidence of this performance, they have so many areas requiring rapid technical improvement. The one facet that will be addressed immediately is their lack of hunger. They will hardly be as docile again.
Youngs is touted as a rival to Murray for the Lions test jersey in New Zealand next summer but there was no comparison between them here. That said, Youngs had little or no ball to make any impact and it says everything about this current Tigers squad that he looked the only live candidate for that tour. They normally have a handful in contention. One other is tight head prop Dan Coles who will probably be back in harness for the return clash.
Munster will know what to expect. It will prove enlightening to see how they will cope with what Leicester will throw at them next weekend and if they can build further from this polished performance.
What we can say with certainty at this stage is that Munster have added a new dimension to their game under Erasmus. It helps that the midfield partnership of Taute and Rory Scannell looks the best balanced the province has fielded for some time. Taute waved to the crowd after the final whistle but it didn’t register that this could well be his last home game before heading back to Cape Town on the expiration of his short term contract.
Francis Saili is due back sometime soon and the pressure will be on him to deliver the consistent excellence, both in attack and defence, the Springbok has delivered since his arrival last September.
Glasgow’s unexpected win over Racing 92 in Paris suggests that this pool is set to end up in a straight head to head between the two Guinness Pro 12 sides with the representatives from the Aviva Premiership and the French Top 14 playing second fiddle. After the events of last season when no Pro 12 side made it to the knockout phase, that is a welcome development.
As so often happens in these back-to- back encounters, that could all change within a week.
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