‘We are encouraging all the players to work on their skills’

It is not just Racing 92 who possess the talents to unlock opposition defences. Not if you are talking to Stephen Larkham at any rate.

‘We are encouraging all the players to work on their skills’

It is not just Racing 92 who possess the talents to unlock opposition defences. Not if you are talking to Stephen Larkham at any rate.

Munster’s senior coach looks around a squad boosted by the return of a dozen Ireland internationals for this evening’s Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 clash with the galacticos and sees a group of players with skills offering him a variety of ways to attack the Top14 side at Thomond Park.

This is an area, of course, where Munster have been found wanting when it mattered most, not least against the same opponents in the 2018 semi-final in Bordeaux, where a 27-22 scoreline flattered van Graan’s side following an awful start that saw the Parisians run in three early tries.

It will need a much more dialled-in Munster performance than that for the home side to stay unbeaten in the pool heading into home and away games against defending champions Saracens next month.

Larkham saw a Munster side strengthened by many of those World Cup returnees claim a bonus-point victory at Ospreys last Saturday to get the campaign off to the necessary strong start in this so-called group of death and he knows they can give him plenty to work with as he bids to take them to the next level.

“I am just looking at Niall Scannell here,” Larkham said on Tuesday at Munster’s High Performance Centre when asked about the Irish Test contingent. “He is one of the most skilful hookers I have ever seen. And his work rate is second to none. Just as a little example.

“It’s refreshing to get those guys back but the guys that we had here previously have picked things up really quickly.

"The internationals coming back in obviously have that ability to pick things up but they’ve got a skill set that is well advanced as well.

"As an attacking coach, it gives you a number of different options, a number of different areas where you can attack because you have got skills all across the park.”

He also sees high standards being set by the players he has worked with since his arrival from Australia and there was no better example to cite than the long, left to right pass executed by loose head prop and European debutant Jeremy Loughman to Chris Farrell that contributed to Andrew Conway’s try last Saturday.

“Jeremy is unique because he had the skill set before he got here,” Larkham said of Loughman. “He is someone who will work on his skills.

We are encouraging all of the players to work on their skills. Do we need them all to throw a 20-metre pass out in front of a 13 running onto it? Not necessarily, but he just had that skillset. He is an extremely talented player.

Loughman gets another chance to shine following that try-scoring, man of the match performance at Liberty Stadium, retaining the number one jersey in the absence of the injured Dave Kilcoyne ahead of the more senior James Cronin.

Today’s weather forecast suggests a Thomond Park crowd (heading for a sell-out, with more than 24,000 tickets already sold) is more likely to see a score in the style of Cronin’s touchdown from a driving lineout maul and Loughman’s round-the-corner opener, than the heads-up, play what’s in front of you, efforts Larkham is aiming for.

Racing come to Limerick, with familiar and much-missed faces Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo named in their starting line-up, having clinically dispatched understrength Saracens 30-10 last Sunday.

Their power and tempo unsettled the beleaguered Saracens, whose lineout was dismantled by Ryan and company and their carriers stressed by a dominant defensive line.

They also fell prey, as Munster had done in Bordeaux, to a fast Racing start, trailing 10-0 after 10 minutes and 18-3 by half-time.

Thomond Park offers a different set of circumstances to the covered arena with its hard and fast artificial surface in Paris that Racing call home.

Larkham is pragmatic enough to know European rugby is very much a horses for courses affair. The bells and whistles learned since the summer may well be parked as Munster roll up the sleeves and revert to type on a chilly, damp November evening in Limerick.

“Yeah. Well, I think you’ve got to be realistic. You look at the situation of where you are on the field. The conditions, the current score and then you have to respect the opposition. There are a number of different factors that come into your strategy.

And throughout the game, there will be changes in strategy too. Sometimes we will be a little bit more conservative but most of the time we are trying to encourage the players to find the space and play what is in front of them.

With Munster tails up as the big guns return to Thomond Park en masse for the first time this season, this could be a European night to remember and it will need to be if this Racing outfit is to be denied.

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