Munster have faced some heat before at this stage of the European pool campaign but until now it has been of the metaphorical nature.
Tomorrow: U Arena, 3.15pm
Referee: Matthew Carley
TV: Sky Sports
Bet: Racing 4/7 Munster 6/4 Draw 17/1
Tomorrow under the roof of Racing 92’s spectacular new U Arena in Paris, there will be the literal challenge of high temperatures as they bid to reach the Champions Cup quarter-final stages for a record 17th time.
Playing under sunny skies in April and May are nothing new to Munster but making the transition from the tacky winter playing surfaces of recent weeks to an indoor arena and the atmospheric changes that brings is something else, with the artifice extended to Racing’s 4G pitch.
Good thing then that Johann van Graan’s players are at this stage well used to adapting circumstances. Over the past two seasons they have coped with so much change in terms of coaching personnel it is remarkable not only that they reached last season’s semi-finals but are going so well in the Champions Cup this time around.
The province goes into this Paris match with a four-point lead over their rivals at the top of Pool 4, unbeaten after four rounds and knowing not only that a victory would guarantee progress to the last eight and all but eliminate a dangerous Racing side from the knockout stages but also that a losing bonus point would not be too bad a consolation.
That is key to managing expectations of what represents a successful weekend in the French capital with a home game against Castres to come a week tomorrow back in the great outdoors of Thomond Park.
To get even a losing bonus point from this game, though, will still require the right mentality because this is a very tricky assignment for Munster. Accuracy, intensity and good discipline in summer rugby conditions will be essential ingredients if van Graan is to secure a third successive Champions Cup pool win and maintain his 100% record in Europe at the start of his tenure as head coach.
Those were certainly the foundations of the home and away victories over Leicester Tigers in last month’s rounds three and four games and the incoming boss witnessed those strengths from the Thomond Park stands in October when Munster, under Rassie Erasmus, won an arm-wrestle with Racing, breaking a 0-0 stalemate in terrible conditions with second-half tries from Conor Murray and Andrew Conway, converted by Ian Keatley, providing a cushion before a late Parisian fightback earned a losing bonus point in a 14-7 win.
That was then, however. Circumstances are very different now, with Racing enjoying a run of excellent form that saw them demolish a weakened Clermont side 58-6 at the U Arena last weekend to move to just a point off the Top14 lead, their eight tries coming from seven different scorers.
Munster, meanwhile, have tailed off since returning from Welford Road having claimed pole position in Pool 4, outclassed at home by Leinster on St Stephen’s Day and, without a number of frontline players, ambushed by Ulster as their discipline dissolved during an awful second half at Ravenhill on January 1.
Van Graan’s side had relinquished a 17-0 interval lead to lose the match 24-17 and the red-carded Sammy Arnold to a three-game suspension. That was the thin end of the disciplinary wedge for Munster, following hot on the heels of a ‘team’ yellow card for Fineen Wycherley after the concession of a string of breakdown penalties.
It was better last Saturday when Munster beat an understrength Connacht at Thomond Park but as Peter O’Mahony acknowledged this week getting the right side of the referee remains a regular topic of conversation.
“It’s something that we address every week. We’ve certain figures that we want to try and keep penalty counts under and we reassess that every week. I’ve only been involved in one or two games where you’re down to one or two penalties,” O’Mahony said.
“You don’t want to take the competitive edge away from a team either but we’re giving away some silly penalties and they’re the ones that we’ve to cut out. There’s no bones about it. I don’t think there is this whirlwind of a disciplinary issue that I’m hearing of, but it’s something that we address every week.
“It’s something that we have a huge amount of pride in, and if you’re going to get a win away from home in Europe it’s going to be something that’s very important, so it would be very foolish of us not to be addressing, but we address it every week.”
O’Mahony certainly seems to be viewing tomorrow’s game in pragmatic terms, aware that there are different circumstances in play this time around compared to their last meeting with Racing.
“The conditions weren’t great that night granted, but I think we’d be happy enough if it was a close game and we can put ourselves within a shout. In Europe anything can happen. We try and play the best rugby we can in Europe because you have to when you come up against teams like that.
“So we’ve got to focus on ourselves this week and try and train as well as we can the two or three times we get out there, and try and put ourselves in the best position.”
Anything can happen, indeed, and in a competitive pool, Munster could find themselves coming home from France with a quarter-final in the bag or locked in a three-way fight to finish top of the table.
The heat is on, then, but if Munster manage to bring even a hint of sunshine to their performance to claim a losing bonus point under the
U Arena roof, it will be a job well done.
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