Munster are in the Heineken Cup knockout stages and that means it is down to business at The Stoop tomorrow.
If there is one team that can rip up the form book and draw a line under that horrendous closing 20 minutes in Glasgow last Friday night at Scotstoun, it is a Munster team led by a match-fit Paul O’Connell with an intensely motivated Ronan O’Gara pulling the strings and boosted by the return of internationals Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan.
Their reemergence is one hell of a transformation to the side that slipped passively into the Glasgow night a little over a week ago having shipped more points than any Munster team since 2003-’04, and as the province’s supporters decamp en masse across the sea and head towards South-West London for tomorrow’s European quarter-final against Harlequins, that should be enough to put a spring in their step.
No-one should be brazen enough to start making their semi-final travel arrangements quite yet, because this is a Harlequins side shaped by Conor O’Shea that is battle-hardened, clinical and not inclined to offer up gifts in the way of easy points. Yet for all the angst being experienced in Rob Penney’s camp this season, as his players have grappled with an evolving game plan based on good decision-making and pinpoint accuracy, this is the sort of occasion when experience comes to the fore, strong voices are spoken and attentive ears absorb the message.
Whatever has gone on before is about to give way to the hard-minded pragmatism needed to overcome the English Premiership champions, this season’s top seeds and top points scorers from the Heineken Cup pool stages.
Harlequins scored 28 tries in overcoming Biarritz, Connacht and Zebre and no team in the competition enjoyed more possession, the Londoners spending an average of 17 minutes and 55 seconds per game with the ball. So this is clearly not a side to continue flinging the ball wide more in hope than expectation that it will produce tries.
Munster need to regain the hard edge that has been seen only in glimpses this season and sustain it over 80 minutes and they need to employ their maul, round-the-corner phase play and utilise the direct running of James Downey as they did in the 22-0 league defeat of Connacht a fortnight ago and for the first half against Glasgow before the wheels feel off the team performance as a whole.
The return of Ryan, O’Mahony and Murray can make that a potent force for victory while a fit-again Zebo, back a week ahead of schedule from the broken bone in his foot suffered on February 10 against England, gives Munster a cutting edge that has not been seen since a place in the knockout stages was secured against Racing Metro back in January. That was Zebo’s last game for Munster before the Six Nations and he has been sorely missed, his return never more crucial given the withdrawal of captain and fellow wing Doug Howlett due to shoulder problems.
That Munster’s problems in the Six Nations window have all been self-inflicted are both the frustration and the bright spot to assessing their chances this weekend and Murray, who has been as deeply missed as Zebo, given Duncan Williams’ struggles at scrum-half, is justified in having such a positive outlook about the eradication of the costly errors, including three intercept tries in Glasgow.
“I think a lot of people will own up to their mistakes the last day,” Murray said this week. “I think we all believe in our system and how it works and we’re all quite confident going onto the pitch and fitting into that system, we know our roles.
“A lot of the mistakes probably were individual and people have owned up to that. You can’t really account for it, you can’t coach someone not to make an individual error so it’s fingers crossed on the day that doesn’t happen.
“Training’s gone quite well, defensively we look really sharp and in attack as well, so I feel good within the team at the moment.”
Of course, feeling good and training well is a theme that ran through the Ireland squad for the duration of the Six Nations and we all know how that ended. Good feelings and a bit of a buzz at Carton House did not save Declan Kidney from the axe earlier this week nor enhance many players’ reputations ahead of Lions tour selection.
Yet this is Munster, with the hope and promise that anything is possible. There’s nothing scientific or quantifiable about it, just a feeling that deep within this Munster squad, a big performance is lurking.
Conor O’Shea sends out Joe Marler, Rob Buchanan and James Johnston, younger brother of Toulouse tighthead Census Johnston, in a powerful front row and there is plenty of shove from behind where Olly Kohn and George Robson pack a punch in the second row. Munster should expect a feisty confrontation.
Good, solid front row in Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and BJ Botha, who started well as a unit against Glasgow but once Rob Penney started using his bench, the scrum started to wobble a little and Munster lost their impetus. Needs an 80-minute effort but if it comes, then the visitors will have a good platform.
Solid if unspectacular with Olly Kohn returning after making his Test debut with Wales during what started as an injury-hit Six Nations for the eventual champions. Flanker Chris Robshaw and No.8 Nick Easter also offer viable targets for hooker Rob Buchanan.
Paul O’Connell starts alongside Donnacha Ryan, giving Munster Ireland’s two main lineout leaders. O’Connell, of course, will call the shots and hooker Mike Sherry is Munster’s most dependable thrower, while James Coughlan, Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony give Munster a plethora of options to keep Quins guessing.
England captain Chris Robshaw leads by example at ruck time and in No.8 Nick Easter and blindside Maurie Fa’asavalu, Quins can be an imposing presence in the tackle area. Scrum-half Danny Care is also a sniping threat around the fringes.
The return of O’Mahony to the Munster back row gives the province plenty of aggression and intensity, which, to be fair, was not lacking in his absence in the first 50 minutes against Glasgow last weekend. Having Conor Murray at scrum-half, though, should bring urgency at the base of the ruck.
Nick Evans would have been New Zealand’s fly-half but for a certain Dan Carter and Quins are grateful he threw in his lot at The Stoop. His place-kicking has rescued them time and time again while he also has tactical acumen. Care’s box-kicking can come unstuck on occasions, though.
Expect Ronan O’Gara to be up to the task after emerging from his mini-slump in recent weeks. His cross-field kicking is also such a big weapon for Munster while there is no better fly-half for eking out territory by kicking out of hand. Munster’s back three of Jones, Zebo and Hurley are also strong kickers who will look to exploit space.
Conor O’Shea has a back line that loves to play running rugby and is perfectly capable of executing it with Lion wing Ugo Monye and England’s Mike Brown at full-back. They are also in peak form, even if results haven’t gone their way and will be a massive threat to Munster’s defensive line.
A raw nerve for Munster of late. Simon Zebo’s return is massive in the pursuit of running rugby but the error count has been so high this season, it has tempered the desire to play expansive rugby at all costs and this game might indicate a further back-to-basics approach. If Munster get it right, they could be devastating. It’s a big ‘if’.