Munster to clear another hurdle in race for silverware

Munster’s preparations for today’s Guinness PRO14 play-off unravelled last night as Keith Earls was ruled out of the Thomond Park clash with Benetton.

Munster to clear another hurdle in race for silverware

Munster’s preparations for today’s Guinness PRO14 play-off unravelled last night as Keith Earls was ruled out of the Thomond Park clash with Benetton.

Earls had been named earlier in the day for a return to the left wing after a month out with a thigh injury but now joins fly-half Joey Carbery on the sidelines for another crucial knockout game as their team bids to set-up a semi-final trip to Leinster in two weeks.

The Ireland backline duo’s cutting edge was missed in the European semi-final loss to Saracens on April 20 and head coach Johann van Graan was desperate for them to return as the fight for a first trophy since 2011 narrowed to a single front.

Yet the Munster boss was only able to recall Conor Murray to scrum-half from his list of injured stars after he was withdrawn in the warm-up last week following a collision that left him with a stiff neck. Munster were also forced into a change on the bench as loosehead prop Jeremy Loughman was replaced by Liam O’Connor.

Given the pivotal nature of today’s game and its capacity to end Munster’s long-suffering hunt for silverware for another season, it is a surprise this afternoon’s Guinness PRO14 play-off has proven such a difficult sell.

The visit of tricky and confident first-time play-off qualifiers Benetton to Limerick has all the ingredients for one of those tense, emotional rollercoasters Munster supporters have readily identified with over the years yet the province will reportedly be satisfied if they can put 10,000 bums on seats at Thomond Park today.

No such lethargy in the Munster dressing room though. Still stinging from their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens a fortnight ago in Coventry, Munster have doubled down on their determination to finally get hold of a first trophy since 2011 and simply have another hurdle to jump through now in order to realise their ambition.

In Benetton, Munster must overcome an Italian side celebrating their debut appearance in the knockout rounds after a season built on a stubborn refusal to bend the knee, a solid set-piece and a punchy, powerful counter-attacking back three.

Their ability to keep possession for long periods and grind down defences has already earned them draws on the road at fellow play-off qualifiers Ulster and Leinster and a home win over Glasgow during the league campaign.

Yet what proved to be Edinburgh’s undoing in their European quarter-final at home to Munster on March 30 was a lack of knockout rugby experience and as good as Benetton have been this season, this is uncharted territory for Kieran Crowley’s team from Treviso. Munster boss Johann van Graan was guarded this week on the advantages his side can derive from their greater knowledge of do-or-die, win or go home rugby.

“Some possibly,” van Graan said. “We are good when the focus is on ourselves. I would like to think that we are good when we have to adapt.”

“We caught Connacht unaware with Mike Haley’s try. It was a penalty just outside the ‘22. The normal thing for Munster to do is just kick it out. We said, listen, we have to up the tempo of the game... It’s one of the best tries we have scored all season, so I think it’s more adapt on the day.

“You also have to adapt to the referee and the way he interprets the game.”

Munster must try and exploit Benetton’s knockout inexperience on home soil, applying the pressure that saw them eke out a bonus-point win at Stadio Monigo just four weeks ago with a much weaker side than the one selected for today’s mission.

They will now be missing the cutting edge of both Carbery and Earls but there should still be enough talent and big-game experience to see off a happy-to-be-here Benetton and move into the last four.

Meanwhile the departure of Duncan Williams, Mike Sherry, Dave O’Callaghan and James Hart from Munster Rugby at the end of the season has been confirmed, bringing the number of players exiting the province at the end of the month to eight in total.

Scrum-half Williams, hooker Sherry and back-rower O’Callaghan were homegrown talents who served Munster for their entire playing careers to date while Dublin-born scrum-half Hart joined from Racing 92 two seasons ago.

They join Ian Keatley, Stephen Fitzgerald and Jaco Taute as well as Ronan O’Mahony, forced to retire through injury, in departing the club. Both O’Callaghan and James Hart will play their club rugby in France next season while Sherry has been on loan to Gloucester since March.

All will be recognised during half-time at Munster’s Guinness PRO14 quarter-final against Benetton in Thomond Park this afternoon.

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