Munster midfield must be central to game plan

HEINEKEN CUP SEMI-FINAL

Munster midfield must be central to game plan

Over the course of that epic encounter, his midfield partnership with Greg Barrett played a massive role in one of the very rare occasions when an All Black side were held scoreless over the course of 80 minutes.

One of the quirks of Munster’s European odyssey in the professional era has been the lack of home grown centres to augment the conveyor belt of top class half-backs and back row forwards, outstanding second rows and a whole host of excellent hookers.

In Munster’s four Heineken Cup final appearances, four different centre partnerships have featured with John Kelly — a winger by trade — the only home-grown product to man the role. New Zealand-born Jason Holland is the only midfielder to feature in two finals, partnering fellow countryman Mike Mullins in the 2000 decider against Northampton. Two years later he had former Wasps and Irish international Rob Henderson beside him against Leicester Tigers.

In that breakthrough final of 2006 against Biarritz, Kelly partnered the South African powerhouse Trevor Halstead, who scored Munster’s opening try, while two years later Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi swept all before them in that memorable triumph over Toulouse.

Earlier in that 2006 campaign, former GB rugby league player Gary Connolly maintained the overseas theme in midfield when he features in the opening four pool games, partnering Halstead in three of those before some home-grown talent finally came to the fore with the emergence of Barry Murphy.

Both James Downey and Casey Laulala arrived during the close season and it has taken time for both to find their feet. Keith Earls has also featured in midfield in the current campaign but Munster have struggled to hit the right chemistry in this vital sector.

With Munster choosing to favour a wider game, even off the first phase, that tended to bypass the strengths of Downey’s game. He is excellent at taking the ball to the advantage line, sucking in defenders and off-loading. He did that magnificently in tandem with Laulala in Munster’s opening competitive game of the season in Murrayfield against Edinburgh. Laulala also featured prominently that evening despite taking a ferocious knock early on and that fledgling partnership promised much. Laulala is a master at attacking space and looking to play others through a defensive hole with his deft off loads. Unfortunately he has a tendency to pass on the blind, in the anticipation of a support runner being there, which often leads to turnovers.

At this stage of the season the support players should have bought into what he is attempting to do and play off him. There are signs of it happening and perhaps tomorrow is the perfect day for Munster to capitalise on his quick-fire hands. However, he cannot afford to turn over possession cheaply as this Clermont back line are masters of creating try-scoring opportunities off turnovers.

Downey and Laulala pose a massive physical presence in midfield and must use that to best effect in defence. They excelled in this facet against Harlequins and have an even bigger task now against the threat posed by the likes of Wesley Fofana. He is the top centre in Europe and is scoring tries for fun. How France left him isolated on the wing for the vast majority of the Six Nations is a complete mystery.

The key for Munster is to play Downey into the game by allowing him do what he does best — carry off first phase and suck in opposite number Fofana.

On quick recycles, Ronan O’Gara will ping Clermont deep in their own half and enable Munster to frustrate Clermont’s attacking flow.

As a combination, Downey and Laulala enjoyed their most productive afternoon against Harlequins and followed up on that with another very good display against Leinster. They must now have the confidence to demand a more central role in the overall game plan.

In defence and attack, Munster’s latest midfield combination have a key role to play in the outcome of this game so long as the Munster front five compete on equal terms against a very powerful Clermont unit.

If Paul O’Connell and company can manage that, then Munster’s midfield giants have a serious chance to etch their names alongside an impressive array of midfield talent from outside the province who have left a lasting legacy.

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