HEINEKEN CUP POOL SIX:
Munster v Perpignan
Munster will go in to their must-win Heineken Cup clash with Pool 1 leaders Perpignan tomorrow intending to meet fire with fire against a powerful French Top 14 side at Thomond Park.
With team captain Peter O’Mahony back in harness following his November Test exertions with Ireland and promising to give a formidable Perpignan pack the abrasive, physical encounter he believes they crave, it promises to be a contest full of fireworks in Limerick as Munster aim to reel in the French Catalan side and keep their own qualification hopes alive following an opening-round loss at Edinburgh in October.
Head coach Rob Penney has also recalled scrum-half Conor Murray following his tour de force at scrum-half against the All Blacks a fortnight ago with both O’Mahony and Murray back in red for the first time since the league win away at Glasgow on October 25.
There are six changes in all to the side that beat Newport Gwent Dragons last weekend — a win that left Munster sitting pretty at the top of the RaboDirect Pro12, four points clear of Leinster.
Murray will partner Ian Keatley who continues to hold off the claims of JJ Hanrahan as first-choice fly-half following his man of the match performance at Rodney Parade, when he kicked all his side’s points in the 18-14 victory.
Casey Laulala returns at outside centre with Keith Earls switched from 13 to right wing following his successful return from a knee injury last weekend, while the other change in the backline sees Johne Murphy come in on the left wing with Denis Hurley moving to the bench as Felix Jones staying at full-back.
With James Coughlan recovered from a finger in the eye against the Dragons, he is the sole surviving member of the back row from the win eight days ago in Wales.
CJ Stander is replaced at openside flanker by Sean Dougall while O’Mahony comes in on the blindside with Billy Holland moving (along with Stander) to the bench as back-up lock.
Mike Sherry’s knee injury in Newport means Damien Varley starts at hooker with Penney having to name the inexperienced Duncan Casey in reserve, the Shannon man poised to make his Munster debut in the midst of potentially the hottest forwards contest of the season.
Perpignan lead Pool 6 from Munster by a single point having lost narrowly at Gloucester in their opener and then beating Edinburgh on home turf at Stade Aimé Giral, where Munster must travel for next Saturday’s return.
Anything but a win this weekend would likely make that trip to the south of France academic and Penney needs his forwards to match O’Mahony’s intent, not just in the set-piece, where Perpignan have depth to cover their mounting injury list but at the breakdown where the Munster captain will lead his men into battle against a gnarly if sometimes wayward French outfit when it comes to the tackle contest.
For all their forward power in the scrum and height in the lineout, Perpignan have shown in Europe that they can get sloppy at ruck time and they handed Gloucester too many easy points at Kingsholm in October.
Former Munster centre Lifeimi Mafi will miss tomorrow’s Thomond Park clash because of his indiscipline that night and not only do Penney’s men have to capitalise on such indiscretions, they have to look after their own ball better as well.
“Ball control is consistently an area of concern for us and around that is our skill execution,” Penney said.
“We are nowhere near within the bands we would deem to be acceptable. One is the decision-making of the ball carrier and one is the decision-making of the support people but (if) we get those bits right we will start to be a much more dangerous side which is exciting, but there is a little bit of frustration in there at the moment.
“We are much more capable than some of our performances would indicate and credit to the lads they are working hard; they know more than anybody it is just (about) going through this little transition process.”
It will be an examination of Munster’s ability to learn such lessons they cannot afford to fail because Perpignan, with a left-right kicking combination from their two fly-halves, James Hook at full-back and No.10 Camille Lopez, as well as a hungry pack, can put a player’s decision-making faculties under the heaviest of pressure.
Keatley’s game management against the Dragons last week and indeed for much of this season has been excellent and the fly-half has to maintain those standards if Munster are to have a successful campaign in Europe.
That goes for the whole team, of course, because mistakes tomorrow will come at a heavy price.
Munster v Perpignan: How they compare
Munster: A continuing source of strength for Munster, with satisfying outings throughout the season, not least against Leinster in the league and Gloucester in round two. There is depth across both corners of the front row and plenty of heft behind them but this will be the toughest challenge of the campaign to date. 3½/5
Perpignan: They may have lost Nicolas Mas to Montpellier but the Catalans still have a formidable, physical front row and a powerful front five, bolstered by heavyweight locks. Scored a penalty try last week in the Top 14 against a depleted Clermont pack after succumbing to massive physical pressure. Loose-head prop Sebastien Taofifenua is just 21 but a handful, 5ft 9ins but 19 stone. 4/5
Munster: Damien Varley looks set for a long shift, with Mike Sherry out injured at hooker and a rookie on the bench in Duncan Casey, but the lineout and driving maul have been going well for Munster and it was boosted by the return of Paul O’Connell. The addition of captain Peter O’Mahony is a further plus at the lineout. 4/5
Perpignan: Giant locks in 6ft 9ins Welshman Luke Charteris, and 19-stone, 6ft 7ins Sebastien Vahaamahina on the bench, make the Catalans a tough lineout unit to compete with on their ball and difficult to attack off this set-piece. Like Munster they like to drive it off the lineout and this could be a key area. 3½/5
Munster: Peter O’Mahony will lead Munster happily into a breakdown tussle against the French. The penalty count is staying within acceptable levels of late but Rob Penney will want better ball retention in the face of a physically intense tackle contest. 3½/5
Perpignan: Tough, physical and abrasive in Europe, Perpignan were guilty of giving away costly penalties due to lack of discipline, with a tendency to stray offside and lacking accuracy. But Alasdair Strokosch is still a handful. 3/5
Munster: Fly-half Ian Keatley is in excellent form, both in front of goal and in open play. He kicked six penalties from seven attempts at the Dragons last weekend, including a couple of long-range pressure kicks late on that sealed the league win away from home. Keatley’s game management is improving steadily and he can put his team in all the right places if the need arises. 4/5
Perpignan: French cap Camille Lopez pulls the strings from fly-half while Welsh full-back James Hook takes the place kicks and is in fine form off the tee. Perpignan have an excellent kick-chase, too, with wing Sofiane Guitoune a real threat off the left-right combination of Hook and Lopez. 4/5
Munster: The expansive side of Munster’s game is still a work in progress and in their last two league outings that hit and miss vibe is underlined by a four-try bonus point in Cardiff followed by a no-try outing in Newport. The return of Keith Earls to the wing with Casey Laulala at outside centre will bring added bite and speed as will Felix Jones’s retention at full-back. 3/5
Perpignan: Possess an exciting backline that can pose dangers in broken play. They keep the ball moving and have great off-loading skills, moving play out wide with pace and power. The downside is an error count that means their cavalier spirit can offer opposing teams chances to counter. 3/5
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