On a day of farewells at Thomond Park, the last thing Munster need this afternoon when Edinburgh come calling is to kiss goodbye to their season.
A final bow for Paris-bound Simon Zebo and fellow departees Robin Copeland and Gerbrandt Grobler will provide emotion enough for supporters who two weeks ago witnessed their side’s Champions Cup semi-final exit in Bordeaux. Revisiting darker emotions than a fond au revoir in Limerick will not be entertained by the home fans.
And you can be sure those feelings are shared in the Munster dressing room when the Reds return to win or go home territory as the Guinness PRO14 play-offs get underway with this semi-final qualifier. As the hosts, Conference A runners-up, and Conference B’s third-place finishers from the Scottish capital prepare to go head to head, it is clear that Munster’s main motivation this afternoon is to atone for their shortcomings in those opening 25 minutes against Racing 92 in Stade Chaban-Delmas.
Conor Murray admitted this week he had thought of little else but the individual errors, including his own, that allowed Racing’s Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas to run riot in that opening quarter, Thomas scoring two tries and gifting captain Maxime Machenaud a third on the way to a 24-3 half-time lead that left Munster with a mountain they could not climb.
Today’s PRO14 quarter-final offers a way to right the wrongs as a large part of the starting line-up which went down fighting in Bordeaux is restored by Johann van Graan after being rested last week to try and halt Edinburgh’s blistering run of winning form.
Their 15 regular-season league wins under new boss Richard Cockerill in 2017-18 is equal to Conference A winners Glasgow Warriors — eight of them coming in nine games since the beginning of the year, including a 12-6 win at Murrayfield during the Six Nations on March 16.
While that run may come as a shock to many casual observers, and even some opposition sides this season, used to considering Edinburgh as perennial also-rans, Munster No.8 CJ Stander is not surprised by this run to the play-offs.
“They are a team that work hard every weekend for each other. A lot of people really didn’t see them coming in games, and they surprised them. They work hard for each other, have a big work rate and the team stick together,” Stander said.
“The coaching staff they stick with their teams, especially with Richard (Cockerill), he is a guy that coached European Cup teams, he coached Leicester. He knows what he is doing, he hasn’t surprised me at all.”
It is only natural that Cockerill should this week play down his team’s chances of what would still remain something of an upset, were Edinburgh to defeat Munster and book a semi-final with Leinster at the RDS, the second side in three weekends to stymie an all-Ireland knockout blockbuster.
The former Leicester Tigers director of rugby knows this is new territory for his players, a first visit to the league knockout rounds, and that Thomond Park is not a venue for faint hearts but van Graan does not buy into the portrayal of naivety from a coach who has masterminded European victories over Munster in Limerick.
“They’ve got a quality coach, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the world, they’ve got a lot of belief and they’ve got a very simple plan, so I think they’ll come here with nothing to lose.”
With the bit between their teeth and the resolve to make amends, it would be difficult to back against Munster on their home patch. Van Graan has picked a solid and seasoned pack including the restoration of captain Peter O’Mahony and Grand Slam-winning team-mate Stander to the back row.
JJ Hanarahan is retained at fly-half after last week’s draw with Ulster and ahead of Ian Keatley while there is a settled look about the rest of the backline.
Conor Murray returns at scrum-half, Rory Scannell is back in midfield alongside Sammy Arnold and an all-Irish Test back three of wings Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, and Zebo at full-back on his last day at Thomond, should give the home side some attacking verve as they bid to silence the doubters.
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