Scrapping for the bonus boost

NO matter what your sporting preference, the television pictures from venues across Europe last weekend portrayed the same images, driving wind and lashing rain. The weather conditions that prevail at this time of year do different things to different teams. Usually it has the effect of closing the gap between the good and the not so good.

Then there are teams with an ability to cope with anything thrown at them. Champion sides have the capacity to adapt their game to cater not only for the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition but the conditions in which they perform. It is quite encouraging therefore that Munster’s two best performances this season were delivered away from the comforts and security of their home and on contrasting surfaces — at Wasps and Llanelli Scarlets.

If the defeat to Leinster in appalling conditions at Musgrave Park suggested Munster were now a side more at home on a dry track, their display in west Wales last Saturday firmly buried that theory.

On the evidence of the season to date it would appear that Declan Kidney’s side have an improving facility to alter the manner in which they play. The only option currently missing from the mix is a midfield target player in the mould of Rob Henderson or Trevor Halstead.

The arrival of Doug Howlett next month will also increase the attacking options out wide and will compliment the searing pace displayed by Lifeimi Mafi with his remarkable try-saving tackle on Dwayne Peel. It is also a great boost that Munster will be very much alive and kicking for the arrival of Howlett and the return of Paul O’Connell. Saturday’s performance was remarkable in many respects not least in the improvements and lessons learned from the defeat to Leinster.

Munster reinforced the long held view that they rarely perform below par in successive games.

The challenge now, always difficult in these back to back encounters, is to punish Llanelli even further when they arrive in Thomond Park on Sunday.

With the potential return of Stephen Jones, Daffyd James and Matthew Rees, the Scarlets could prove an even more difficult nut to crack.

The display by the Munster pack, many of whom have been under the microscope as a result of the disappointing World Cup campaign, was the main talking point for Sky’s pundits team over the weekend.

While it’s not always pretty to watch, club rugby in Munster over the years has thrived on a staple diet of a productive maul and good ball retention. I still recall an exhibition by a Young Munster pack against Cork Con in Temple Hill when the Limerick side won the All Ireland league, producing a carbon copy of the mini mauls unleashed by Munster in the closing 20 minutes last weekend.

If Munster produced the performance of the weekend, the game of the weekend was the clash of poolrivals Clermont Auvergne and Wasps in France. With the sides sharing 54 points including three tries a piece, it looked at one stage as if the loser would succeed in obtaining two bonus points by virtue of scoring four tries and a losing margin of less than 8 points. That would have been a disaster for Munster. Thankfully Clermont’s try in injury time scuppered that prospect.

Why did Clermont coach Vern Cotter start only two of last Saturday’s team in Thomond Park? With the crucial return game against Wasps at Adams Park on Saturday, we await with interest as to what side they will unveil for that encounter.

On the evidence of last weekend, three of the Heineken Cup’s four best sides are in the same pool. Toulouse, despite their defeat in Welford Road, remain the strongest challengers to the top three in Munster’s pool.

Clermont’s pack in particular look an extremely polished unit with Argentina’s Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo combining magnificently with French internationals Julian Bonnaire, Elvis Vermeulen and Thibaut Privat. Should Clermont beat Wasps in London then Munster’s journey to France after Christmas assumes epic importance.

A close examination of the six pools in this year’s tournament shows just how vital bonus points will become in deciding who eventually advances to the knock-out stages. At this juncture, only four of the 24 teams have failed to secure a bonus point.

Remarkably Leinster are one of those.

Of the remaining teams, Llanelli and Harlequins are rooted to the bottom of their respective pools while Bristol (like Leinster) despite winning two of their three opening games find themselves in third place in their pool by virtue of the failure to register an all important bonus.

With Toulouse at the RDS and Leicester in Welford Road in the New Year, Leinster could really do with manufacturing that all-important win bonus on Saturday in Edinburgh. Without it, they face an uphill struggle.

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