A Munster great escape unlikely, but more positive steps must be taken

An unlikely progress to the last eight aside, Munster have plenty of points to prove when they complete their Champions Cup pool campaign at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo today.

As the scenario on this page hopefully clarifies, qualification as one of three best runners-up across five pools remains a long shot dependent on seven other European ties going Munster’s way this weekend and is wholly reliant on Anthony Foley’s team delivering a bonus-point victory at Treviso.

As recently as 12 days ago, after Munster limped home from Paris following that dreadful performance and humiliating 27-7 defeat to 14-man Stade Francais, even a four-try victory over Treviso, without a win in 11 months, seemed far-fetched, let alone reaching the quarter-finals.

Yet last week’s rebound victory at Thomond Park has put them back in the hunt.

Qualification is still improbable yet there was so much about that 26-13 win that Foley will be praying is continued beyond that emotional day.

Munster, embarrassed and hurt, went to the well last week and wrought vengeance on a team stronger and more numerous than the one that had run roughshod over them during a disastrous second half at Stade Jean Bouin.

They scored tries through their maul, through heads-up, confident rugby, quick thinking and great vision, and they delivered points that had previously been so hard to come by, despite their work-rate during the past two months.

Now the trick is to reproduce that in north-eastern Italy and continue it over the next four months in the second half of the Guinness Pro12 campaign.

As Billy Holland pointed out this week, rekindling that emotional intensity with the flick of a switch is impossible.

Munster have to get back to basics with their skills, set-piece and decision-making to reproduce last Saturday’s performance on an ongoing basis.

Qualification for the Champions Cup quarters has not been the focus for Munster this week, only the need to continue on the winning path and if that is not manageable then they have no business even speculating on a last-eight berth.

And, having seen his side fail to grab vital losing bonus points home and away to eventual pool winners Leicester as well as in Paris, Foley is certainly not holding out too much hope.

What Foley needs most of all is to leave Treviso on Sunday evening with another positive step taken along the road to redemption, to wave goodbye to his Six Nations-bound septet safe in the knowledge he has a confident squad remaining to reboot the league campaign in their absence.

He knows he has the players to do that, to finish the pool campaign on a high and then lift Munster back up the league table into the play-off positions but he needs to see them to back up last week’s showing with another against an Italian side which can be incredibly stubborn on home turf.

Foley will not be reading too much into Treviso’s 47-7 trouncing by Leicester at Welford Road last Sunday.

“They want to get another big performance in,” Foley said of his own squad. “They know going to Italy’s going to be tough because Treviso are packed with internationals and are waiting to take another scalp.

“We are very aware of that, and we are very aware of their potential, with the changing of the coaching staff they have gone back to a more physical gameplan. When Franco Smith and Marius Goosen were there they were innovative, now Marius is gone back in as head coach (following this month’s departure of Umberto Casellato) and you even seen a small bit of innovation in what they did in the Leicester game.

“They have that ability because they are stacked with internationals. We have to be very conscious that it’s not about turning up, it’s about going and performing to the best level that we can because it is going to be required.

“They will test us in a lot of areas but hopefully we will test them as well, and hopefully we will come out on top.”

Foley has made two changes to the side which started the home win over Stade a week ago, re-introducing Donnacha Ryan to the second row and John Ryan at tighthead, the prop yesterday having signed a three-year contract which will keep him at Munster until at least June 2019.

Mark Chisholm makes way at lock while Mario Sagario gives way from the front row, dropping to the bench where Ireland call-up James Cronin returns as loosehead cover following an ankle injury sustained in December.

Rory Scannell has completed his return to play protocols following a concussion against Stade last week and will resume at inside centre in an unchanged backline as Simon Zebo seeks to become Munster’s all-time leading try scorer having equalled Anthony Horgan’s tally of 41 at Thomond Park last week.

Zebo continues at full-back with Andrew Conway yet to recover from the hip injury he suffered in Paris, but no doubt boosted by the two-year contract extension he signed Friday, keeping him at Munster until June 2018.

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