DONAL LENIHAN: Why Keatley is Munster’s key man for Toulon test

Ian Keatley.

The challenges facing the three Irish provinces in European quarter-finals this weekend.

 

Champions Cup quarter-final: Munster v Toulon, Thomond Park (3.15)

If ever Munster faced a day when the collective force is required to deliver more than the sum of the individual parts, this is it.

A horrible run of injuries in the centre and back three has left Munster decidedly short, especially when it comes to impact off the bench, against an opposition with an embarrassment of riches in the same sector.

Yet Munster will draw strength from the fact that, in similar circumstances against Leicester Tigers in Welford Road last December, short key performers in Chris Farrell, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Jaco Taute against a Tigers backline with England’s starting half backs in Ben Youngs and George Ford, a quality midfield of Wallaby Matt Toomua and Lion Manu Tuilagi and England flyer Jonny May on the wing, they still prevailed.

While, as always, there will be a huge reliance on the returning Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony to lead the way, arguably Munster’s most important player today is Ian Keatley. He is the weathervane for this team.

Generally, when he plays well, as he did in those back-to-back wins over the Tigers, Munster play well.

The defensive axis he forms with Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold will prove absolutely crucial when it comes to curtailing the ability of Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud and Malakai Fekitoa making their trademark inroads in midfield.

For that to happen the Munster trio will require a massive shift from their forwards and the back row in particular in slowing down the quality of ball available to that monstrous centre pairing. Preventing them from generating momentum is going to take a monumental effort.

Munster need to play right in the faces of Toulon from start to finish, suffocate their space, frustrate their half-backs and get the crowd on the case of their back three every time Murray and Keatley launch an aerial bombardment.

Keatley acknowledged during the week that Munster can’t rely on bullying this gargantuan Toulon pack like they would normally do against visiting teams. In this one they will have to be smarter, play to the crowd and force Toulon into the errors that so often afflict them when playing away from home in the French Top 14.

Something has to give today as both sides tend to build momentum through the quality of their set piece. Munster’s scrum has been superb this season, with two quality front rows available to start and finish the job. Problem is Toulon are equally as powerful.

Like Munster, Toulon also has a well-organised line out and a really powerful maul. Despite the astounding finishing quality offered by the mercurial Fijian Josua Tuesova and the impactful Chris Ashton in a potentially devastating back three, this game will be decided elsewhere.

For Munster to win, Murray and Keatley must be offered the platform to dominate the key territorial battle. Toulon must be kept pinned back in their own half of the field. A bit like Ireland, once they get a foothold in your twenty two, they normally leave with points on board.

This is as big a challenge Munster have ever faced in Thomond Park but, because of the special chemistry the venue delivers on days like this, you wouldn’t bet against them despite the injuries.

Champions Cup quarter-final: Leinster v Saracens, Aviva Stadium (Sunday, 3.30pm)

The outcome may well come down to which of the stellar names takes ownership of the game and manages to lift all those around them. It says everything about the quality on show today that there are a number of totemic figures in each side with the capacity to turn the tide.

For Saracens, look no further than Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell. Hurting after an underwhelming Six Nations campaign with England at a time when expectations were so high, they will look to this game as a springboard towards finishing a disappointing season on a high.

In Johnny Sexton, Leinster have a real leader on top of his game and eager to achieve more, despite his recent heroics for Ireland. He is energised by playing against Farrell and was thrilled to wrest the No 10 Lions shirt from him for the second and third tests in New Zealand. He badly wants to deliver for Leinster.

To enable that to happen Leinster will require huge performances from two of their rising stars up front in James Ryan and Dan Leavy. Ryan only starts his sixth game for Leinster and his battle with Itoje will be fascinating.

Leavy was absolutely sensational for Ireland in the Six Nations and compensates for the physical edge that Leinster lose when Sean O’Brien is missing. The breakdown will prove a key battleground and Saracens, despite the massive loss of Billy Vunipola, have quality in their back row in the hardworking Jackson Wray, former Springbok great Schalk Burger and Nick Isiekwe.

Saracens like to boss games right from the outset, build a score and rely on their famed rush defense to suffocate teams into submission. They are difficult to break down but not great when forced to chase a game. That is exactly what Leinster must force them to do.

It was always going to be a challenging season for Saracens with so many players on Lions duty. They have lost six games in the Premiership and were trounced 14-46, at home, by Clermont in this tournament.

Yet they have shown character and signs of recovery in recent weeks so Leinster must undermine that and sow the seeds of doubt in their minds early.

Take them out of their comfort zone. Ask new questions. Do to them what they have being doing to all opposition across Europe for the last few seasons.

Leinster have the quality up front and across their back line to bring Saracens recent dominance in Europe to an end.

Challenge Cup quarter-final: Connacht v Gloucester, Sportsground (Today, 1pm)

For Connacht this game represents the last chance saloon. Their entire season comes down to this. Plain and simple. No more room for excuses, no more near misses. It’s time to take matters into their own hands.

The six losing bonus points they have accumulated in the Guinness Pro14 offers a fair representation of their form to date. Good at times but lacking consistency. It doesn’t help either that they continually shoot themselves in the foot.

Take their last outing as an example. Playing against Edinburgh at the Sportsground, once again Connacht were architects of their own downfall, conceding a try 10 seconds into the game from a Tiernan O’Halloran block down.

Having fought their way back into the contest, playing some excellent rugby, they repeat the dose with another block down, another seven points conceded, another losing point.

The Challenge Cup has proved a welcome respite for Connacht all season and now represents their only likely path into the Champions Cup next season. With five wins and a draw in their pool, they appear more relaxed in this tournament.

The return of Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane from national squad duty could not be better timed. Connacht are in need of a boost and that quartet are aptly placed to supply it.

Gloucester, despite sitting in a credible sixth position in the Aviva Premiership, always give the impression of being flaky and vulnerable. Connacht need to exploit that today.

No English premiership side enjoys coming to Galway, as evidenced by recent visits there by Wasps and Harlequins in the Champions Cup and Connacht need to ratchet up the pressure on Gloucester from the outset.

At times, their free-flowing, off-loading, wide game takes the physical pressure off their visitors, allowing them get into the game through the intensity of their defensive effort. One big hit on the opposition can lift a visiting team no end. Connacht can’t afford to give Gloucester cheap targets.

Instead, they need to engage them up front, put them on the back foot and allow Aki take them on at the gain line. On front foot ball, the Connacht back three of O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun are beginning to recapture the form that played such a vital role in winning the Guinness Pro12 a few seasons ago.

Connacht have to get the balance to their game right today. No need to abandon the ball in hand game that continues to serve them well but mix it up better by taking on this Gloucester pack in the physical stakes and shaking them up.

Get the crowd engaged. Connacht are good enough to win this. They just need to be more accurate with the ball and more physical when Gloucester have it.


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