The deeper the hole the greater Munster's will to climb out

It says much about Munster’s standing in rugby country that their current state of ill health is consuming more column inches and debate than Leinster’s relentless march towards further glories.

The deeper the hole the greater Munster's will to climb out

It says much about Munster’s standing in rugby country that their current state of ill health is consuming more column inches and debate than Leinster’s relentless march towards further glories.

The run of form which has seen just two wins from the last seven starts has prompted debates from barstools to national radio station studios and last Friday’s sorry defeat in the PRO14 up at Ulster only magnified the intensity of the discussion.

Yet if we have learned nothing else from Munster over the years, it is that the deeper the hole they manage to dig for themselves, there is always the capacity to generate a stronger will to climb out of it.

So while Johann van Graan’s injury-hit squad travel to Paris this morning in a situation that may draw parallels with an ill-fated trip in the same direction four seasons ago, there has to be a whole lot more confidence in the current outfit than there was when Anthony Foley’s party ventured into the eye of a similar storm at Stade Francais. Just like that 2015-16 Heineken Champions Cup campaign, Munster fly to Charles de Gaulle airport this morning facing the distinct possibility of falling to consecutive European defeats.

When they arrived at Stade Jean Bouin at the round-five stage of that season, it was a side that was struggling to find its bearings, still raw from the retirement of its last great warrior, Paul O’Connell.

They had already lost home and away to Leicester Tigers and their worst fears were realised that January day as Stade ran roughshod over Munster in a 27-7 mauling that left Foley close to speechless.

It was the nadir from which Munster have been rising ever since and this current squad is light years removed from that sorry state, despite recent performances and headlines suggesting otherwise.

Munster may well return from Paris tomorrow night with a defeat and staring a pool exit in the face for the first time since that season but the trend remains on an upward curve and there remains as much spirit, resilience and quality in the team van Graan has selected to suggest victory is every bit as possible as that premature exit from Europe.

The head coach believes a line can be drawn under last weekend’s demoralising defeat to Ulster, when a mix and match side hampered by the IRFU’s player welfare protocols, left Munster lacking in those aforementioned assets.

The inability to select a consistent team has crippled van Graan’s plans so far this season and frustrated Stephen Larkham’s evolution of the Munster attack.

The latter may remain a work in progress but at least the head coach can field something close to his strongest team, notwithstanding the concern that must remain over fly-half JJ Hanrahan’s suspect hamstring. It is a team he feels has been only a hair’s breadth away in Europe’s pool of death so far this season.

“I believe in this squad, an experienced team,” van Graan said.

“The performances in Europe in my view have been good. We got our five points against Ospreys, which was the start of the competition, we did what we needed to.

“The Racing game (drawn at home in round two) was a fantastic game of rugby.

“The big moment in that game was when Finn (Russell) spotted Jeremy (Loughman) and he went straight through just after we drew level at 13-all.

“That’s what rugby is about. JJ had a massive moment to kick it from the sideline, we had one moment to win it 20 seconds from time and we didn’t use it.

“The Saracens game was very tough with the conditions in that second half. We came away with a win.

“Again from our side, a really good game of rugby in London. Lost a few guys to injury but we played well on that afternoon. Had an opportunity on 9-3 to go 12-3, didn’t use it and the two Vunipola brothers really brought it. So that’s the European challenge for us as a group and that’s the Munster way.

“We’ve made it difficult for ourselves and now we’ve got to get through this on Sunday if we want to progress in this competition for this year.”

The four points squandered in those games van Graan described, from the missed Hanrahan drop goal to win rather than draw at home to Racing and the failure to go for a losing bonus point at Saracens in round four, may well come back to bite Munster whether they win or lose in Paris tomorrow. All the head coach can do now is trust his players to at least fight to the bitter end.

“It’s knockout, it’s massive. It’s huge but that’s European rugby.

“We knew after the Saracens result away, the fact that we didn’t use our opportunity to get that point and the fact we had that opportunity to beat Racing at home and missed that drop kick, that those four points potentially had a big swing in the pool and it did.

“So we’ve just got to go out on Sunday afternoon and perform.”

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