The weight may have been lifted from the shoulders of Munster players following the end of their record-equalling losing streak last weekend, but that will all count for nothing if defeat returns to haunt the province in Europe today.
Seven weeks after their original arrival in Paris was shelved in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the French capital the previous weekend, Munster finally touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport yesterday with determination etched across their faces as they neared their season-defining date with Stade Francais at Stade Jean-Bouin this evening (4.45pm Irish time).
A victory over interprovincial rivals Ulster in Belfast last Saturday brought a much-needed conclusion to a terrible run of five straight losses since their European fixture with Stade, scheduled for November 21, was postponed.
It has also restored the confidence within a squad that had been regularly shooting themselves in the foot throughout performances against Connacht, Dragons, Leicester (home and away), and Leinster.
Yet a return to losing ways in France today and Munster can kiss goodbye to European rugby for another season, for defeat will leave them unable to reach the knockout stages for the second year in a row and with two games still to play in Pool 4.
Head coach Anthony Foley needs no reminder of that and is only too keenly aware that he is in a results-driven business, his desire to implement a two-year plan for the development of his charges compromised at every turn with the need to get them over the winning line, week in, week out.
Thus, he suggested, it was time for his players to deliver for their boss.
“There’s always going to be one very happy provincial coach in Ireland, there’ll be two sweating, and there’ll be one under pressure,” said Foley this week when asked how we was dealing with life in the hot seat 18 months into a two-year contract.
“That’s the way it’s been traditionally and that’s the way it will continue to be and it’s not about dodging the blows, it’s about just trying to understand it and trying to build momentum.
“The season is full of different stages where you need to build momentum and I would suggest we’re at a stage now where we need to go after our season, and it’s important for us for the next three or four days that we do that.
“That’s how short it is, to be honest with you. When you’re talking about a whole season, two seasons, you know, have we got the squad? Yes, we do.
“Are we still trying to build? We are.
“And I don’t think you can do it over a short period of time.”
It all boils down to today, in other words. Forget points tallies at the end of the pool stage or laying foundations for later in the campaign when the Pro12 title race might be the only thing on offer.
And never mind next week’s return fixture with Gonzalo Quesada’s side at Thomond Park. All that matters to Foley is collecting at least four points for a victory over Stade.
“It’s just an away match at the moment, we’re not even looking at the following week,” the head coach said.
“We understand the maths of it and all that; we need to get our job done this weekend. It’ll be two sides going at it hard, they’re the French champions and we need to respect that.
“We do, as a group, respect that and we’re going to their back garden and we need to play.”
The mood has at least lightened a little — winning will do that to a squad — but the performance levels are still below where they need to be if Munster are to have any hope of getting out of this pool following those home and away defeats by Leicester Tigers last month.
Munster will go in against Sergio Parisse and company with a side still a way off the form it had shown right up to the postponement of this game in November, when they had won six out of their seven opening games in the Pro12 and secured a bonus-point home win over Treviso in Europe.
Yet Foley still has confidence in his players to get the job done.
“We didn’t feel like we were a million miles away against Leicester, Connacht, Dragons, and Leinster, but we had lost a small bit of focus from pre-Treviso where we were scoring and scoring freely.
“Maybe we took that for granted at times. Since then, you know, we’re trying to build up that mentality again and getting used to scoring again.”
A tryless outing in Belfast last Saturday does not exactly build optimism, although the fact that Munster are back to winning ways should.
Now is the time to start moving through the gears once more because the alternative will be another extended period off the road, the bandwagon sidelined and in need of an overhaul.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Stade v Munster: How the sides compare
There is very much a mix and match look to Gonzalo Quesada’s selection as Stade’s star names Will Genia, Rabah Slimani and Pascal Papé are missing from their starting XV.
Both Australia scrum-half Genia and France lock Papé started the 18-17 home win over Toulouse in last weekend’s Top14 clash but are absent from the matchday squad to face Munster while France’s aggressive, abrasive tighthead prop Slimani only merits a place on the bench.
Springbok loosehead Heinke van der Merwe is also among the replacements having started last week. Morné Steyn replaces Jules Plisson at fly-half where he will partner scrum-half Julien Dupuy.
French strength at scrum time is a cliché for good reason and Stade have the pack to live up to top billing. It destroyed all comers on the way to the Top14 title last spring and has the power to disrupt Munster’s hopes of getting front-foot ball off their set-pieces.
Yet tighthead Rabah Slimani, their chief troublemaker, consistently disruptive on opposition ball and destructive on his own put-in, has been demoted to the bench for this European home outing and with Pascal Papé missing from the second row, the rest of the Stade front five has a second-string look to it.
Danger Man Not Named Parisse
Full-back Hugo Bonneval has been called into new France coach Guy Noves’s Six Nations squad and he showed his skills last weekend in Stade’s Top14 win over league leaders Toulouse.
Bonneval took a pass just over halfway, and with a great turn of pace collected his pinpoint chip over the Toulouse defence inside the 22 to score a wonderful individual try.
Anthony Foley makes six changes from the side that ended a five-game losing run with a win at Ulster last Saturday.
Lock Dave Foley and backs Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Andrew Conway have all overcome knocks to take their place in the starting XV but Donnacha Ryan misses out with a knee injury.
The back row sees a change with Robin Copeland coming in at No.6 alongside Tommy O’Donnell, making his seasonal European debut, and captain CJ Stander.
Murray is reunited with Ravenhill matchwinner Ian Keatley at half-back while Earls and Simon Zebo return to right and left wings respectively, and Conway comes back at full-back.
There has, however, been a further fitness setback for fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal, who reported further tightness in his quad following training on Wednesday and was ruled out of selection.
Areas of Concern
Munster may have got back to winning ways at Ulster last Saturday but head coach Anthony Foley was not impressed with his side’s continued lack of ruthlessness in the opposition 22 or their lineout performance.
Munster lost four lineouts on their own ball, two of them stolen, while there was frequently scrappy ball which left the visitors unable to capitalise off their set-piece.
One to Watch
Rory Scannell’s selection at inside centre is one to be applauded given the 22-year-old’s impact on this Munster side.
Slotted in beside Francis Saili in midfield and with Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway outside and behind, his presence gives the Munster backline some added verve with this game another major stepping stone in Scannell’s rapid development.
With Stade’s decision to go with a less than full-strength starting XV, perhaps a signal that improving their current lowly Top14 status is the priority for the French champions rather than Europe, Munster’s bid to stay alive in the Champions Cup has received an unlikely boost.
And the tide may be turning towards another famous backs against the wall rally on French soil after Munster ended their five-game losing streak with a rare win at Ulster.
Stranger things have happened but Munster will have to continue along a sharp upward curve if they are to produce a performance capable of overturning Parisse and co on their home patch.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved