Connacht v Munster
Tomorrow: Sportsground 7.15pm
Scary. That’s the very appropriate word Keith Earls uses to describe the sense of unease in the Munster camp at the thought that they may not qualify for next season’s European Champions Cup.
All the indications are that they need to take a minimum of eight points from their remaining three Guinness Pro12 games, starting with Connacht in Galway on Saturday night, to make the premier European competition next year and that won’t be easily done.
“It’s win or bust now,” says Earls. “We are not ruling out the top four in the league and a place in the knock-out stages and if not, then we must qualify for Europe because it would be a long season if we are not there next year. That’s where Munster wants to be, playing in front of full houses in Thomond Park on big European days. Anything else is really scary.”
Earls also accepts that the team’s performances this season have militated against the house full notices — or anything like them — going up at the Limerick stadium over the past several months.
“That’s up to us as players,” he accepts. “We have to start performing to get the crowds back. We need to give people a reason to come back. In fairness, there have been some good crowds but times have changed. It can be frustrating at times but we can’t be angry about it. We need to bring it on as players.
“The majority of people are positive. The people who know about rugby know this is a young squad and they know they need to give us time. But then it’s up to us to perform.” Munster rugby teams in the professional era are no strangers of the necessity to win big matches but what the current squad is now enduring is something of a different nature altogether.
“It’s pressure rugby now,” says Earls. “We’re used to semi-finals and finals and now it’s pressure at the other end, trying to qualify for Europe and the play-offs. We try to win every game but there is more pressure on us to win these ones.
“We’re back to being underdogs and that’s where we like being. Our backs are against the wall and that’s where Munster squads in the past have come out fighting. It’s a new group of players but hopefully we can show some of the Munster of old.
“It’s about backing ourselves. We can’t be frightened of making mistakes. We have to get our basics right, know our game-plan. The knowledge of our game-plan probably let us down in the last few weeks, fellas not knowing their role. It’s the small things that are winning games now. We just have to start getting better.”
When Connacht finally ended a 29-year gap without a win at Thomond Park last Christmas, they bullied Munster in the forward exchanges, especially in a rampant first-half performance. A repeat can lead to only one outcome this week although Earls insists that there is more to the task awaiting them in Galway.
“You can’t go up there and bully them,” he agrees. “You need a game-plan. The packs of years ago probably could have done that, a lot of experienced lads, physically bigger lads. We need to be smarter.” Coach Pat Lam has worked wonders for Connacht rugby. Not alone have they been at or close to the top of the Pro12 table all season and also made their mark in Europe but they have also allied an adventurous and enterprising approach to their traditional ways. Could Munster be just a little envious?
“Yeah, it’s been impressive,” says Earls. “It’s high risk but they are pulling it off. It’s the same game-plan Rob Penney brought to us, the two-four-two, and obviously we didn’t take to it as well as Connacht.
“It’s obviously good for people to watch. I don’t know why it didn’t work for us. I think there were seven games in the two years that it did and we played really well but these are different squads and different characters.
“It’s probably tradition in Munster that we are able to go out and beat up teams. But that style of game was one we weren’t used to, Donncha O’Callaghan or someone out on the wing. The lads like getting stuck in. Munster boys like getting stuck in. When it did work out, we played really well. It’s an attractive style. Argentina and all the others are starting to pick it up now. And it does need time.
“It’s up to the decision makers on the pitch. Our game against Leinster, we probably played a bit too much and panicked under pressure and tried to blast over them when there was space out wide. That’s something we have to take from that game.”
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