Last Saturday’s 38-0 Champions Cup Pool 1 win over Leicester Tigers was as impressive for Munster as it was a damning indictment of their English visitors’ lack of intensity and coherence at Thomond Park.
Yet despite going down to a record European defeat and being blanked for the first time in this competition for 13 years, Leicester’s status as two-time Heineken Cup winners and perennial English title contenders as well their fortress of a home ground demands the sort of respect Erasmus gave them this week.
The bonus-point win last weekend exposed such a gulf in class between the two teams that any reversal of fortunes seven days on would appear an outlandish proposition and it is for that reason alone that Munster’s director of rugby was cautioning against over-confidence as the province prepared for this afternoon’s return fixture.
“I think if it was at home, if the first game was away and you come back home then it might be a problem,” Erasmus said of the capacity for complacency.
“But I have been told by the players since I walked in here Monday after training ‘you don’t know what’s waiting on that side for us’.
“Just look at their team; look at their individual players and look where they are in the Premiership table; and the way they played last year in the semi-finals in the competition. Look at Richard Cockerill’s coaching career, then all of a sudden (they’re) a bad team? They had a bad day, so we won’t be underestimating them.”
European club rugby’s premier competition is littered with examples of remarkable turnarounds in these rounds three and four match-ups. Leinster, for example, will be mindful ahead of their home tie with Northampton tonight that last week’s big win at Franklin’s Garden was a repeat of their 40-7 hammering of them at the same venue three years ago and that the Saints rebounded with a 19-8 ambush at the Aviva a week later.
Or take Leicester’s own comeback from being nilled the first time in 2003 by Ulster, 33-0 at Ravenhill in round three, when back at Welford Road they inflicted a 49-7 drubbing on the Irishmen. Strange things can happen in sport, as Erasmus is only too aware.
“History has shown Munster has done it, Leicester has done it. A few weeks ago (we won in the PRO12) in Glasgow and they have done it and went and beat Racing (in Pool 1, last weekend),” he said. “It is a competition where you have world class players and they have a world class coach and then you go and put those players at home in front of their crowds and you get one or two brilliant things and the belief is back.” The approach from the Munster boss may sound overly cautious given the paucity of Leicester’s play last weekend and the further diminishing of resources available to his opposite number Cockerill for the return encounter. In addition to last Saturday’s casualty list, which included Test-quality personnel such as Matt Toomua, JP Pietersen and Dan Cole, the Tigers have been further declawed by the loss of fly-half Freddie Burns, who failed a Head Injury Assessment in Limerick and has not recovered.
Yet Erasmus has rightly resisted suggestions he might have been tempted to rotate his squad with some equally important matches looming in the next month in both the PRO12 and Champions Cup rounds five and six. This is a massive opportunity for Munster to plant a foot firmly in the quarter-finals with an away win at the first opportunity in this campaign and expunge the bitter memories of an early pool exit in each of the last two seasons. Just as there is a demand for clincial finishing to convert dominance into points on the scoreboard, so there should be equal clamour for Munster to keep a boot pressed firmly on Leicester’s throat. Form and last week’s comparative performances suggests that is the likely scenario and Erasmus has kept his strongest team on the field to try and finish off their old rivals once and for all.
The window dressing may portray it as a mark of respect and a defence against complacency but despite the invevitable pride-fuelled bitter Leicester response, Munster are on a roll. If they come close to repeating last week’s outstanding 98 per cent tackle completion rate it will not matter how ferociously the Tigers bite back. They have the momentum of seven very different victories behind them and are primed to make it a very valuable eighth.