New competition, new Munster and a new approach.
Anthony Foley sends his charges into the dawn of a new era for the European Champions Cup as well as himself and his team knowing Munster are already in must-win territory as they face Sale Sharks at AJ Bell Stadium (1pm).
This new competition, a streamlined successor to the Heineken Cup Foley lifted as a captain in 2006, has plenty of detractors but few could argue with the quality of its participants and the calibre of challenge ahead of the 20 teams.
None more so than in Pool 1, where Munster are pitted alongside two fellow semi-finalists from last year’s Heineken Cup, Saracens and Clermont Auvergne, as well as today’s opponents.
And with so much trouble lying ahead, with Sarries visiting Limerick in six days, and the likelihood of a tight finish meaning little chance of progression as one of three best runners-up in the five-pool tournament, Foley knows if his side fail to get anything less than a win out of today’s 12,000 sell-out game then Munster might as well kiss goodbye to their hopes of reaching the last eight.
Sale are no mugs, despite evidence to the contrary from last week’s 43-10 Premiership defeat to English champions Northampton Saints, yet the quality of the rest of the pool makes it necessary that Munster leave Manchester this evening with a victory.
They have the quality, the belief and the smarts to do that and will be acutely aware of their opening-day stumbles in each of the past two seasons, at Racing Metro and Edinburgh. That they eventually reached the semis on both occasions is not a luxury they will be afforded this time around, as first-year head coach Foley has reminded his players this week.
“I suppose I am one of the few who can say it, since I have been involved in this competition at the start, you get what you deserve out of this competition,” Foley said.
“You slip up one day and you will be turned over and you have got to be on your mettle, you have to understand that on any given day because of the quality of the opposition and because of the expectations of the players, it is a massive competition.
“We are playing Sale at (their) home, I have been there and gotten turned over, turned over badly. We have gone there and we have won but it does take a massive effort and it does take a massive effort to win any game away from home.”
Foley cited a big English pack being marshalled effectively by half-backs in Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter and maverick English fly-half Danny Cipriani in order to release a dangerous back three as the reasons why this will be a tight contest and also discounted the Shark’s miserable defeat at Franklin’s Gardens last Saturday as an indicator that this will be an easy team to roll over.
“Different competition, different mindset, different mentality,” insisted the head coach. “They went to Northampton which is a very tough place to go. Maybe they had one eye on this weekend, a home fixture in Europe.”
Foley will look to his players to repeat the intensity at the breakdown they showed against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight ago, thereby denying opportunities to Cusiter and Cipriani when Sale have the ball. Cut off supply to the fly-half and Munster have much less to worry about, just as was the case in the Pro12 defeat of their arch rivals.
And when Munster have the ball, the ruck merchants have to be just as productive to get that momentum Foley demands and provide a platform for scrum-half Conor Murray to direct the latest version of traditional Munster attacking play within the tramlines.
No wonder Murray says the breakdown is “huge” for a scrum-half playing the narrow game.
“I’m really enjoying the way we’re playing. It is a lot more direct in close quarters. I’m enjoying it. We’re getting used to the type of breakdown we want to have and we’re getting the results from it. We’re building. So hopefully that’s only going to get better. The breakdown is key, probably the one deciding factor in any game. If you win the breakdown, you don’t need any fancy moves or anything. You’re just winning collisions and getting front-foot ball, it makes everything so much easier for me, especially. That’s in the top three aspects we look at in any week, it’s one of our main things.”
It was certainly the main thing that stopped Leinster in their tracks and repeating the trick this lunchtime should get Munster off to a flying start.
How they match up: Simon Lewis looks at the key battles
Sale: The Sharks make just one change to their front row from the pack that was at times blown away at scrum-time by Northampton Saints last week at Franklin’s Gardens. That comes at loose-head where Welshman Eifion Lewis-Roberts relegates Ross Harrison to the bench. 3/5
Munster: Duncan Casey returns at hooker following an ankle injury and packs down with Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer. The Munster scrum started shakily against Leinster before warming to their task. Munster also have strength off the bench in hooker Eusebio Guinazu, loose-head James Cronin and tight-head BJ Botha, which could prove crucial over the closing minutes. 4/5
Sale: The Sharks will look to get their maul going off lineout ball but there were a few malfunctions last week in the 43-10 defeat by Northampton, with one of the six tries coming as a direct result of a lost throw. Needs to improve. 3/5
Munster: Paul O’Connell returns having sat out the Scarlets game last week and partners the combative Dave Foley in the second row, as the province looks to continue the strong platform its lineout delivers, augmented by the back-row contributions of Peter O’Mahony. Again, the bench is a strength, with Billy Holland and Robin Copeland valuable reinforcements. 4/5
Sale: Ruck-time made for ugly viewing last weekend as far as Sale were concerned, the Sharks’ passivity and Saints’ ferocity at the breakdown combining for a one-sided contest. That said, if allowed to do their work, Sharks can provide a decent platform for half-backs Cusiter and Cipriani while without the ball, they are fans of the choke tackle. 3/5
Munster: If the Reds return to the intensity they brought to the breakdown against Leinster a fortnight ago, and cut off supply to Cipriani at source, then it should be game over for Munster today. Excellent breakdown work last season got them to the Heineken Cup semi-final. They led the 2013-14 competition in rucks and mauls won (97%) and turnovers per game (11.9). 4/5
Sale: Fly-half Danny Cipriani offers a massive kicking threat off either foot if allowed go to work, his accurate placement out of hand finding space or touch with aplomb, at either long or short range, although the kick-chase was sorely lacking last weekend. Not too shabby, either, off the tee, placing an emphasis on Munster discipline within kicking range. 4/5
Munster: Fly-half Ian Keatley went seven out of nine in front of the posts against Leinster a fortnight ago and Munster’s backline as a unit has been kicking well out of hand for the most part, particularly Conor Murray from scrum-half. Munster have sacrificed a little extra pace in Gerhard van den Heever for the more reliable and still not too sluggish chaser Andrew Conway as a wing partner for Simon Zebo. 3½/5
Sale: With Cipriani at the helm, anything can happen, and the fly-half has a potent wing pairing in Toms Arscott and Brady to supply although the Sharks struggled against Northampton to turn possession into points and lacked the killer instincts required. 3/5
Munster: The wide-wide option has been discouraged as Anthony Foley and attack coach Brian Walsh attempt to narrow the Munster game plan and return to what province does best. It seems to be working and while last week’s win over Scarlets saw only one try scored, it was a belter, as Munster strung together 25 or more phases before going out wide for Andrew Smith to score in the corner. 3/5
Sale: 16/25. Munster: 18½/25
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