IT was not the type of preparation any of the Irish sides would have wished for last weekend before resuming their respective European journeys, with all four provinces losing in the Magners League.
Munster will be thankful for small mercies and a kind draw that now offers the first of their crucial back-to-back fixtures against Perpignan in the familiar surroundings of Thomond Park. With four losses from four away games in the Magners League, coupled with another away defeat to Northampton Saints in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, Munster have developed an alarming case of travel sickness. It is just as well they are not heading to the south of France this weekend.
Munster’s season has been a case of one step forward, two steps back. Having re-integrated the returning Lions prior to the autumn internationals and steadied the ship in the last game with an impressive 24-10 win over Ulster, the November break came at a time when Munster were just about finding their feet.
Last Saturday night’s performance against an under-strength Ospreys was another step in the wrong direction. After five weeks of inactivity it was the overseas contingent, with the exception of new loose-head prop Wian du Preez, who looked off the pace, which is hardly surprising. Munster opened their Heineken Cup campaign against Northampton with their international contingent severely lacking in game time. That issue has now been resolved with their recent involvement in high quality games against Australia and South Africa. Now, just as they are up to speed, the likes of Dougie Howlett, Paul Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi and Jean de Villiers have played little or no rugby for over a month.
It doesn’t help then, when trying to turn pressure into points that the metronomic boot of Ronan O’Gara, so reliable for so long, is going through a dose of the yips.
Munster started brightly in the Liberty Stadium with their early pressure manifesting itself with a series of penalties conceded by the home team. Those transgressions would normally be punished by O’Gara enabling the visitors to demoralise the opposition.
However, his failure to find the target handed a huge psychological boost to the hosts, who were very fortunate to be within touching distance at half-time. O’Gara must now separate his goal kicking woes from his general game, which was very good last Saturday.
By contrast, in the Stade Aime Giral on Saturday, four penalties between the fifth and 24th minutes by full back Jérôme Porical propelled Perpignan to a 29-3 victory over Montpellier, that leaves the French champions in second place in the Top 14.
While they have now won 16 games in a row at home in competitive action, they have also lost four league games on the road. That shock defeat to Benetton Treviso in Italy on the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup means that there is no margin for error on Friday night.
Munster must adopt the attitude that what has happened so far is largely irrelevant. It is what happens in the next two games that will shape and define their season.
With one reversal already on the books, it is imperative that Munster win on Friday night as past experience has shown that beating Perpignan at the Stade Aime Giral is a very difficult proposition. With the expectation that Northampton will do the double over Treviso before Christmas, Munster simply have to beat the French at least once over the next fortnight to keep their aspirations alive for the visit of the Saints to Limerick in January.
Munster have struggled to put an 80-minute performance together in this campaign. While they have never lacked for effort, their execution has been very poor. Their defence has also suffered at times with different combinations struggling to form any meaningful consistency and understanding.
The midfield of Mafi and de Villiers is still a work in progress with the South African continuing at outside centre against the Ospreys with Mafi inside. They will have their work cut out, both in attack and defence, with the new star of French back play, Maxime Mermoz, forming a potent centre pairing with the multi-capped David Marty. Their half backs, Nicolas Durand and Nicolas Laharrague will kick a lot, but scrum-half Durand is also lightening quick around the base of the ruck.
It is up front, however, where this contest will be decided. As usual Perpignan have a monstrous scrum with captain Nicholas Mas leading the charge. For a number of the Munster pack, there are interesting parallels between this game and Ireland’s recent trench warfare with the Springboks. Perpignan play a very direct style of rugby relying on their intense physicality in the contact area. However when they are matched there, as Ireland did against John Smit’s men, they tend to go into their shell.
THE other key factor will be discipline. Munster were very poor in this department against the Ospreys, with James Coughlan and Denis Fogarty in the bin for 10-minute spells in the second half. Porical is very accurate with the boot and will punish such indiscretions. This is a game where subtlety is not required, more brute force and belligerence. There should be plenty of that on offer from Munster.
Leinster, even without Jonny Sexton, should have enough firepower to overcome the Scarlets, even in their brand new stadium. They had a bad autumn, losing their captain Mark Jones, Lions hooker Matthew Rees and the experienced Dafydd Jones, all while on international duty. The holders must capitalise on this and with Brian O’Driscoll in imperious form at present, must underline their champion credentials after losing that opening game in the RDS against London Irish.
Ulster face a big challenge, even in Ravenhill, against Stade Francais and their form last Friday against Glasgow Warriors was very disappointing. Their task is simple — win this or effectively they will be gone.
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