They may have put on a scrummaging masterclass against a renowned French pack last weekend, but there will be no resting on laurels for Munster’s forwards as they prepare to face Scarlets at Musgrave Park on Saturday.
It was their scrum that turned the game for the Irish province at Stade Aimé Giral last Saturday as Perpignan surrendered a 9-3 half-time lead following almost eight minutes of scrummaging in front of their own line.
The French Catalans, who had conceded a penalty try and been steamrollered over for a pushover score the week before at Thomond Park, were put through the wringer again as Rob Penney’s side exerted maximum pressure on home ball initially. A big shove and great breakaway work from Peter O’Mahony forced Perpignan to throw the ball dead and hand Munster the put-in, from where the home side conceded a free-kick and three penalties before referee JP Doyle eventually ran beneath the posts and awarded a penalty try.
That was quite a feather in the cap for a Munster pack, which had been improving under former scrum coach Paul McCarthy and has kicked on further with Penney taking over the role. For a set-piece believed to be the bane of modern rugby and thus subjected to seemingly endless tinkering by the game’s governing body, the scrum can still change games and give a team a massive psychological hold over a weaker opponent.
“It’s massive,” Penney said of that penalty try in Perpignan’s perceived stronghold “because the French obviously pride themselves on their scrum, their scrum power. They were probably hopeful they could come out after half-time and establish set-piece dominance. That’s why that period just after half time, when we ground them and ground them was such a critical psychological boost for us.”
Penney’s front-row rotation policy is certainly reaping dividends, with Stephen Archer and BJ Botha sharing the duties at tighthead prop and James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne offering a formidable one-two punch at loosehead, whichever of them starts.
At hooker, the competition between Mike Sherry and Damien Varley was bringing the best out of both players and with Sherry undergoing surgery this week on damaged cruciate knee ligaments and set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines, the baton now falls to Duncan Casey, pushed by Niall Scannell, to keep Varley on his toes.
Casey looks set to start this weekend in Cork, as does Kilcoyne, and the loosehead will not be underestimating a possible all-Welsh international front row featuring loosehead Phil John, hooker Ken Owens and either Samson Lee or fellow young tighthead Rhodri Jones, despite their torrid time at the hands of Clermont Auvergne in Parc Y Scarlets last weekend. Scarlets lost three of their eight scrums against the head to a powerful Clermont front five in a Heineken Cup defeat which all but ends their chances of qualification for the knockout rounds but Kilcoyne is still expecting a formidable contest.
“We’re targeting the next three games as a block. We’re obviously looking for three wins so that starts in Musgrave Park on Saturday with Scarlets,” said Kilcoyne.
“Scarlets are good, they’re stacked with Welsh players throughout the team and up front they have Phil John and Samson Lee, they’ll be a tough outfit to play.”
The Ireland loosehead says the recent scrum dominance over Perpignan was no bolt from the blue but points to a building mental strength amongst the Munster forwards.
“If you look even at last year we had a number of penalty tries and we had a number of pushover tries and it’s continued again this year. Rob has really taken a hold of our scrum and he’s pushing it forward and it’s something we’re continually monitoring and building on and we take it week. It’s an area where we look to gain dominance on other teams.”
Kilcoyne agrees with his coach that the dominance they enjoyed in the south of France was a major confidence boost over their opponents.
“It was huge mentally for them. It is a huge physical statement to go over there and do that. That’s what I think scrum dominance can do. It’s important we keep on top of it.”
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