The evolution stops here for Munster, temporarily at least.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
TV: Sky Sports, TG4
The time for learning will be suspended this evening when Rassie Erasmus sends his team out for the final time in this emotionally draining campaign. Lessons will resume in pre-season but tonight is the chance to put into practice all that has been experienced to this point.
The defeat to Saracens last month in the Champions Cup semi-final has been absorbed and stored, by coaches and players alike. This Guinness PRO12 final against Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium (6:15pm) is the moment at which it all gets put into practice in the hope that a first title since 2011 will provide the launchpad for even greater progress next season.
Victory is a far from foregone conclusion against a Welsh side brimming with attacking flair, red-hot form and the supreme confidence of having comprehensively beaten favourites Leinster on their home turf at the RDS last weekend. The Scarlets are on such a roll they even won the coin toss to play in their home jersey, forcing Munster to don away-day blue for this evening’s Dublin showdown.
Yet after all Erasmus’s squad has endured following the sudden and untimely death of their head coach Anthony Foley last October, the lifting of silverware by captain Peter O’Mahony tonight would be a fitting way to end what one would hope is a unique campaign.
It would also, the South African boss believes, provide an important stepping stone in the development of his younger players.
Erasmus has used 54 players this season, blooding several players from the Munster academy as 21 senior caps have been awarded over the 31 games since September’s big kick-off.
Today’s matchday squad represents the first time he has been afforded the luxury of naming an unchanged 23 yet the Munster boss believes a win over Scarlets would add a little pep to the step of all his playing staff for the future.
“I’d be talking nonsense if I am saying that victory doesn’t give you confidence for the next season.
“Players learn from losing without a doubt, coaches learn from losing but young players, the Scannells, Darren Sweetnam and Dan Goggins who have all been part of this, not all of them will be involved this weekend but it gives you a little bit of a springboard (for the future).
“It doesn’t seem like a dream that is far away (winning the PRO12 title). The team has made it (to the final), we could actually win it. It’s the same for Scarlets. It would be a wonderful for the club. The reality is it is 50-50. After the game, if you have lost it you will feel sad but you will try to get back and try the next season again. It would be not nice to lose.”
The way Scarlets dismantled Leinster last week will have made sobering viewing for Erasmus and his coaches as they figured out how best not to lose today’s final. With a backline featuring British & Irish Lion Liam Williams and PRO12 top try scorer Steff Evans on the wings in a back three with exiled New Zealander Johnny McNicholl and a world-class midfield in Jon Davies, another 2017 Lion, and Scott Williams outside of half-backs Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies, Scarlets boss Wayne Pivac has all the firepower to inflict devastation on an Irish province for the second week running, just as his second string did at Thomond Park during the Six Nations in late February when rebounding from a 21-6 halftime deficit to win 30-21.
Aside from outstanding openside flanker James Davies they also have forwards to create havoc at the breakdown and in contact, just as they unsettled Leinster into sloppy mistakes.
“If you play in the southern hemisphere, most of the club, Super Rugby and international teams have a specialist openside flanker, and one of the centres adopts the skills of an openside flanker.
“And there is always a hooker who can ruck and steal, maybe one of the second-rows. So at every third or fourth breakdown, there is somebody who can steal the ball,” Erasmus said.
“Scarlets are like that. They have a second-row who can steal on the ground, two loose-forwards who can steal on the ground, both centres. It feels like at every breakdown they can put more pressure on it. And we struggled against that when they beat us at Thomond Park.
“They are tough to handle.”
Davies, in particular, is a player who catches the eye every time he takes the field, his level of performance such that he needs careful marshalling and Munster need to be as accurate as they can be in contact.
Yet Erasmus also sought to downplay that Thomond Park loss by admitting: “We didn’t talk too much sense at half-time. They got three tries in eight or 10 minutes and it happened to Leinster (last) weekend, they got two tries in a matter of five or six minutes.
“You know in that game we really got back into it, got into scoring positions. It wasn’t as if we got all stuck, and what are we going to do next, they just really defended well and turned us over at the breakdown really well... we did find ways (back into the game), we just couldn’t finish it.”
The lessons have been learned, now Munster have to go and take the final step.
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