Munster can take giant leap towards last eight

Munster supporters will finally get their wish this evening when Conor Murray partners Joey Carbery at half-back for the first time in provincial colours.

Munster can take giant leap towards last eight

Munster supporters will finally get their wish this evening when Conor Murray partners Joey Carbery at half-back for the first time in provincial colours.

Yet the dream partnership will have to be firing on all cylinders from the first whistle if Johann van Graan’s side are to withstand the backlash they are expecting from a fired-up Castres side at Stade Pierre Fabre.

This is a pivotal weekend in the Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign and Munster entered it with a three-point lead at the top of Pool 2. They know they could finish it with a precious away victory that would plant a foot firmly in the quarter-finals but equally could find themselves right back in the mix if things do not go to plan and with a lot of hard work to do in the final two rounds starting January 11 at Gloucester.

Though Castres hardly acquitted themselves admirably in their lacklustre effort at Thomond Park last Sunday, they left enough of a calling card on their hosts in an abrasive and stubborn 30-5 defeat to suggest there will be plenty of fight left in them back on French soil.

“There’ll be a backlash from last weekend,” Murray predicted confidently. “There was a bit of niggle in the last game and it probably distracted us a little bit towards the end of the game when we could have pushed on and got a bonus point.

“So they’ll be firing from last weekend, or reeling from last weekend and we’ve got to be really task-focused going down there.

“We drew down there last year and we were lucky at certain times but also we had opportunities we could have taken.

“We know it will be completely different, that it will be a much tighter game. You know, it was 13-0 (last Sunday) and then we managed to get through a period of them attacking in our 22 and then eventually snuck away and made the scoreboard look a lot better.

“I can see it being a bit tighter down there. Again, their set-piece, their maul, lineout, scrum, especially their scrum they’ll be disappointed and they’ll be doing an awful lot of work on that in the week I presume and it will be a lot tougher.”

That Carbery has passed fit after withdrawing a week ago with a tight hamstring is a boost to head coach van Graan, handing him a first opportunity to form the Test-quality half-back combination many believe can turn Munster from latter-day bridesmaids back into the perennial title contenders they were renowned for being in their pomp of a decade ago.

It is a harsh call on JJ Hanrahan, the fly-half who stepped into the breach last Sunday when Carbery fell by the wayside and steered Munster to victory with a faultless goal-kicking display and try-scoring man of the match performance.

He must return to the bench and prepare to cover his less experienced but much-vaunted new team-mate, who has the talents to thrill not just supporters but also team-mates and, crucially, his scrum-half.

“Yeah, it is exciting,” Murray said of their partnership. “I have had limited game time with Joey with Ireland. The odd time we have linked up and training an awful lot together. It’s exciting. Like I said at the start of the season, he’s going to be a massive player for Munster and Ireland for years to come. I can’t wait to get going with him but there are a lot of 10s here. I think JJ went really well last weekend. Especially off the tee against Edinburgh, he didn’t have his best day. Mentally to come back and kick everything, 100% off the tee in a big European game is a massive credit to him for that.”

Carbery has already benefited from his consistent exposure at fly-half since joining Munster and after 151 minutes of Test-match experience alongside Murray since his famous debut off the bench against the All Blacks in 2016 theirs is a partnership that can only go from strengthto strength. Murray can provide the experience Carbery lacks and aside from serving as the senior partner he has the skillset and leadership to take some of the playmaking responsibilities off the former Leinster player’s shoulders.

It can also bring the best out a backline growing in confidence and fluency as attack coach Felix Jones expands their repertoire and full-back Mike Haley continues to bed in as a second receiver option to augment the playmaking talents of inside centre Rory Scannell, although conditions will continue to dictate when and where that comes to fruition. If this evening’s conditions in France are anything like last Sunday in Limerick then Munster’s more traditional approach may be required.

That such variety is on the menu at all is a sign of progress for a side exposed as one-dimensional by the best clubs in Europe over the last couple of seasons.

Last season’s Top14 champions come into that category on their home soil, even if they showed precious little of that class a week ago.

Yet as tough as it will be at Stade Pierre Fabre, this is a Munster outfit more than capable of taking another giant stride forward with a victory in France this evening.

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