The signature, announced yesterday evening, of captain Peter O’Mahony on a three-year IRFU contract following Thursday’s confirmation of the arrival of new defence coach JP Ferreira from Johannesburg next week suggests Munster’s ducks are waddling neatly into an orderly formation as the province flies to the English East Midlands for their now-annual pre-Christmas scrap for European pool points.
Add in the return of fit-again Ireland international wing Keith Earls and hooker Niall Scannell to the bench after weeks on the sidelines and joining a buoyant squad that has strung together four consecutive bonus-point wins, including last Saturday’s 33-10 Thomond Park thumping of tomorrow evening’s opponents and there are all the ingredients to fuel enough confidence to power the team plane across the Irish Sea Yet, the return to the Tigers backline of Australian second five-eighth Toomua and England’s Tuilagi, the midfield battering ram with balletic grace, is a serious gamechanger sure to boost Matt O’Connor’s attacking options after an impotent outing in Limerick.
Tally that with Leicester’s record of never having lost back-to-back games in this home and away series of consecutive fixtures across rounds three and four, and the fresh memory of last season’s turnaround from a 38-0 humiliation in Ireland to an 18-16 home triumph and while that will not burst Munster’s bubble there is nevertheless plenty to ponder for Johann van Graan’s and his travelling players.
Munster forwards coach Jerry Flannery believes the lessons have been learned, not just from the Welford Road defeat, sealed with a last-kick Owen Williams penalty from 52 metres but also the attitude adopted from big home win to away challenge.
Flannery believes Munster lost that game because they were second best at the breakdown having underestimated the backlash from a chastened Tigers team, then under the management of Richard Cockerill and given the post-match venting from their head coach O’Connor last Saturday about the home side’s cynicism at ruck time, there will be no such complacency this time around.
“When I looked at the home game I felt we were fitter than these guys and in a week you can’t really get much fitter,” Flannery recalled this week.
“We were probably naive when we went into the away game in terms of their level of physicality at the breakdown. That’s what won them the match in my opinion. We’ve got to prepare for that this week. I think they’re probably fitter because they move the ball an awful lot more this year but they’re probably going to target the breakdown as well.
“With Matt O’Connor’s comments, that was the main thing he spoke about so we’ve got to assume it’s going to be even tougher there this week.”
Last week, Munster’s intensity and work rate slowed Leicester’s ruck ball to such a slow pace that either the home side’s defence was comfortably in position when it was eventually presented or the visitors’ frsustration spilled over into indiscipline.
If Leicester adapt better to referee Mathieu Reynal’s interpretations at the breakdown than they did to his French compatriot Jerome Garces, then Munster’s superiority of last week will be diminished and the Tigers will become an altogether more dangerous attacking force with their enhanced backline behind England half-backs Ben Youngs and George Ford.
“They will certainly be a lot stronger with those two in there,” Flannery said. “Tuilagi is one of the most dangerous backs in the world with ball in hand and Toomua’s got that bit extra in terms of distribution. When you consider they’ve got Youngs and Ford and then Toomua, they’ve got such license. They like to play with width.
“I’m not sure people are aware how Leicester have evolved. They’re less of a set-piece oriented team than they used to be and are far more in their attacking shape. The threat for us and what wasn’t great at the start for us was when you’ve got Youngs there, the forwards have to get a little bit tight because of the threat he is around the ruck D. Then when you’ve got the distribution of himself and Ford and add in Toomua this weekend they’ll rip you and go straight to an edge. These are some of the places we need to be better at the weekend.”
It is not an insurmountable task, Munster’s challenges are never viewed in those terms. Eleven years ago it was the long-range boot of Ronan O’Gara that was the game-winner in the Welford Road rain and perhaps it is going to take something just as special to do the double over Leicester tomorrow night.