Murray faces late test as Reds ready for fireworks

Munster may have named Conor Murray in the side to face old European foes Toulouse in this evening’s keenly anticipated Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park but the Ireland scrum-half still faces a make or break morning fitness test on his troublesome shoulder.
Murray faces late test as Reds ready for fireworks

Champions Cup quarter-final

MUNSTER V TOULOUSE

Today: Thomond Park, 5.45pm

Referee: JP Doyle (England)

TV: Sky Sports 2

Bet: Munster 1/4, Toulouse 7/2, Draw 22/1

The stinger injury he sustained to his left shoulder on March 10 when tackling Wales’s powerhouse wing George North in Cardiff forced him out of the Six Nations finale with England and such is the nature of the problem Murray has been kept under wraps by his province ever since, removing him from contact work all week in the hope he restores the power to his passing game that makes him the in-form number nine in world rugby.

All would not be lost if Murray were not to make it to the 5:45pm kick-off at a sold-out Thomond Park and Ireland showed they could do the previously unthinkable and cope without the 27-year-old when they dashed England’s hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams in Dublin a fortnight ago with the Connacht’s less experienced Kieran Marmion in the green number nine jersey.

Like Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, Munster are not a one-man team and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will start an all-international forward pack and an experienced and extremely capable backline outside of the scrum-half. Should Duncan Williams fill the vacancy the Corkman has shown this season he is a far more capable half-back than he displayed in similar circumstances two seasons ago as Munster were overpowered at Saracens in a must-win pool game.

With a passionate crowd behind them as well as the considerable advantage a home draw brings in the knockout stages of this illustrious competition, the two-time Heineken Cup champions should be favourites to overcome a fading but still dangerous Toulouse outfit, with or without their star scrum-half.

Yet they are quite clearly not the force they can be without Murray in that pivotal position and if that shoulder does not prove up to the task then it will make the task of winning a first European quarter-final in three seasons so much harder.

There is also the challenge of reintegrating the heroes of Ireland’s epic victory over the English at the Aviva in order to book a trip to the capital later this month for what would be a mouth-watering semi-final against Saracens, should they overcome Glasgow Warriors in north London tomorrow.

While it was encouraging for Erasmus to yesterday recall his Irish frontliners Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, CJ Stander and Donnacha Ryan to his starting line-up alongside Murray, it will be the first time they have featured in a Munster side since January 21.

Captain Peter O’Mahony, the man of the match against England, has at least had an 80-minute re-acclimatisation after returning from Ireland camp, playing the whole of his province’s Guinness Pro12 bonus-point win at Zebre last Saturday along with first- season internationals John Ryan and Niall Scannell but he recognises the issues his side will have to overcome if they are to hit the ground running against a Toulouse side providing fewer and fewer personnel to their national side with each season.

“It’s a bit of a challenge, we’ll put ourselves under huge pressure this week to get three good days of training done,” O’Mahony said last Monday.

“We certainly won’t be winging it, we’ll put a lot of detail in this week. Guys will be coming in after a week off and they’ll be fresh. We’ll be looking for them to drive it.

“Guys who have got their first experience of international rugby now are driving it, we’ve had more guys in national camp who can drive that intensity and professionalism so it’s great.

“The guys that were here have put guys under pressure who are coming back so it’s a healthy place for the squad to be in. It’s a week now, we’ve to put ourselves under pressure to get things right and get our detail right and put in a big performance against a massively physical, big team.”

While those 26,200 in the Thomond Park stands and on the terraces, will view the return to the European knockout rounds as long-awaited after two seasons of failure to progress, that absence from the business end means today’s game will be some Munster players’ first taste of a Champions Cup quarter-final.

Yet O’Mahony is confident the likes of wing Darren Sweetnam, fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal and the Scannell brothers, Niall and Rory have already experienced enough in similar surroundings at a stadium that has seen some remarkable occasions and emotions in this rollercoaster campaign not to let this particular stage unsettle them.

“I think we’ve had some big games this season in Thomond Park and some big occasions. Thomond Park has always had an incredible atmosphere but there’s been a couple of special ones this season. It will probably be a step up again, knowing our fans, but I don’t think any of us will have to hold hands. We’ll pitch up on Saturday, and it’s going to be a massive occasion, but I think the guys are going to enjoy it.

“It’s such a great competition and to be in the knock-out stages, you’re in a good place. It’s where you want to be competing. It’s the top of Europe and they’re the games you dream of when you’re a small fella.

“I think at times you can let the whole occasion get to you and I like to think this group has learned not to do that over the last few months after everything that they’ve gone through, that we’ve just got to pitch up this week and enjoy it all the way through to the game, and the game itself, because we haven’t had one in a while and hopefully we’ll have another couple.”

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