Key points to look at ahead of Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final.
1. Setpiece vulnerability must be exposed
There were many aspects of Racing 92’s quarter-final win, away from home, against Clermont Auvergne that will put Munster on edge, not least the quality of their defence and their ability to create line breaks. Yet, despite that excellent performance there was a surprising vulnerability to their set piece that will have caught the attention of both Johann van Graan and forwards coach Jerry Flannery.
Despite the towering presence of Donnacha Ryan and Leone Nakawara in the Racing line out, Clermont continually attacked them in the air and, at the very least, created bad ball for French scrum-half Maxime Machenaud along with pilfering two clean line-out steals at vital stages in the game. Camille Chat started at hooker ahead of Dimitri Szarzewski, as he does on Sunday, despite the fact that his throwing lacks consistency when put under pressure.
Munster will have noted that and will launch Peter O Mahony at the front on their throw to test him. In addition, chief line out organizer Billy Holland will be acutely aware that Ryan has an encyclopedic bank of Munster line out’s still fresh in his memory bank but he has been preparing assiduously with that in mind.
Regardless, Munster’s line out maul set up is brilliantly choreographed with every individual slotting seamlessly into a predetermined role. The massive packs that Munster faced in South Africa were powerless to deal with that level of organization and Munster are capable of creating similar inroads on Sunday especially as the forward unit selected by Racing is geared more to last in the heat and not as bulky as the one Munster faced in Paris last January.
On that occasion tighthead prop Ben Tameifuna and second row Edwin Maka carried a six-stone advantage on their side of the scrum against Holland and Dave Kilcoyne. Without that extra weight to contend with Munster’s maul could create even more problems.
The Racing scrum was also put under severe pressure against Clermont, much stemming from the superior power and technique Rabah Slimani applied on Eddie Ben Arous. Stephen Archer and James Ryan both did well on him in the pool stages and will seek to inflict more damage.
Racing have also decreed that Tameifuna’s 23 stone could well prove a liability in the 26c temperatures expected, so the promising Cedate Gomes Sa starts at tight head. That will please Kilcoyne and should enable him expend less energy at the scrum and facilitate his excellent ball-carrying game.
Against all French teams winning the psychological battle at the scrum is huge. If Munster can deliver that, with two interchangeable, quality front rows offering them an edge to do so then they will be well on the road to creating another one of the special days in Europe.
2. Start well - finish well.
We have become used to the adage of the championship minutes - the 10 minute period either side of half time that so often proves crucial in deciding games of this magnitude. Think of Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph and the key tries scored during that period in the wins over Italy, Scotland and England. Tries scored just prior to the half time whistle can prove inspirational but equally so, a defensive stand and keeping your line in tact in that period can be equally uplifting.
For Munster to prevail today however, I think it is imperative that they start and finish well. The opening 20 minutes has proved challenging in too many of their big games this season, especially when coming to terms with the physical challenge the gargantuan French forward units present.
In the opening quarter of their defeat to Racing 92 in Paris last January, Munster were on the back foot and struggled to come to terms with the sheer size of the opposition. That situation was replicated at home against Toulon in the same period in the quarter final.
In both contests, Munster were fortunate to be only three and six points in arrears at the 20 minute mark. Equally against two very formidable South African packs, the Kings and the Cheetahs, Munster found themselves on the back foot once again, trailing by 12 and seven points respectively in the opening half.
Given the soaring temperature’s expected in Bordeaux, Munster can’t afford to be left chasing this game. That is why their game management throughout, but especially in the final quarter needs to be spot on. In Bloemfontein, with regular half-backs Conor Murray and Ian Keatley on board off the bench, Munster controlled the tempo magnificently.
By controlling territory and by slowing the game down at key points to negate the influence of altitude and in curtailing the impact of the Cheetahs off-loading game, Munster strangled the opposition.
Against Clermont in the quarter-final, Racing won the game because they controlled the final quarter due in no small measure to the impact off a bench that included Dan Carter. Behind when he was introduced, his immediate impact propelled Racing into an 11-point lead they never surrendered.
For Munster to win they need to compete on equal terms from the outset and not be chasing the game entering the final 20 minutes. The overriding message from the South African trip is that this group of Munster players, regardless of who takes the field, are not easily beaten and will fight to the death.
The quality of their defense is such that, despite the inevitable period when the opposition are in control, they tend to be able to weather the storm. That characteristic will be tested to the full and how Munster manage that will go a long way towards deciding the game.
The challenge when playing against Racing is that they appear a more resilient bunch than many of their French counterparts. Even when their understrength team were being pummeled by Toulouse last Sunday in their Top 14 clash, they responded with three tries in the final quarter when many other French teams would already have thrown in the towel.
That is why Munster need to keep the pressure on for the full 80 minutes and be even more alert when Carter is sprung from the bench, either to close out the game or spark a revival. Who knows, Munster might even be holding their own ace in reserve with a hurting Simon Zebo also primed to make his special kind of impact off the bench.
Munster have the capacity to beat this Racing side, as they have done on three occasions over the last two seasons, but it will require their most complete performance of the season to do so.
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