AS the London Irish players embarked on a celebratory lap of honour at the magnificent Madejski stadium on Saturday, my mind drifted to a similar moment of exuberance exactly 12 months earlier.
On that occasion it was the Northampton squad taking the accolades after a four points win over Munster.
The boys in red watched, consigned it to the memory banks and reacted accordingly. Perhaps it is a tribute to how far Munster rugby has come that a victory over the former champions creates such reaction from some English clubs.
Yet many of those same clubs don’t seem to grasp the importance of securing a losing bonus point away from home. Sitting within touching distance in the stand, London Irish coach Toby Booth had left his seat and was headed towards the dressing room a few minutes before Sam Tuitupou touched down for that crucial try at the death. Booth missed the score and didn’t register the significance of the score in the immediate aftermath (though at least he had the good sense to qualify that later).
Munster have been down this road on so many occasions that having their backs to the wall with little or no margin for error will not rattle them. It would be more encouraging, however, if they were threatening the opposition try line a little more often. Already, they find themselves in a must win situation against Toulon this weekend and will require all the usual elements that characterise a Heineken Cup game in Thomond Park to come together on Saturday.
At least the sold out sign and the welcome return of Jerry Flannery to the squad will offer an additional boost.
Given Munster’s injury woes and the self inflicted suspension issues that have reduced their options behind the scrum, the French outfit are not the worst opposition they could be facing. They play little or no rugby, relying almost exclusively on the boot of Jonny Wilkinson to convert penalty opportunities and drop goals. Mind you, he has been pretty prolific on that front of late.
Ospreys coach Scott Johnson was moved to comment after their game last weekend “I was falling asleep watching them and it was hard to play against but that’s the way they play.”
Right now Munster need to rein in their adventurous streak given the dwindling resources available behind the scrum. Disciplinary hearings in successive weeks for Mafi and Tuitupou are also an unwelcome distraction in the build-up to a big game. That type of indiscipline is unacceptable and could cost the side dearly.
Munster’s defensive organisation was good in London and they need to build from there, play territory a bit more often and improve their discipline at the breakdown. After all, even Wilkinson or in his absence Felipe Contepomi, can’t convert drop goals if they spend most of the day in their own half.
Toulon enter this tournament as a Tier Four side and lack the type of experience that is so necessary playing away from home. Munster must apply the pressure from the off and use the pace and ball carrying ability of David Wallace, who will surely start, from broken play. I think Wallace should be utilised more often as a trailing runner, playing off the Munster midfield. He has the ability to create havoc.
Toulon coach Philippe Saint-Andre admitted he will make changes and in some respects that is necessitated by the fact that with so many non European qualified players – ERC only allows two in a match day squad – others such as Contepomi, All Black tight head Carl Hayman, and flying winger Rudi Wolf may see game time.
Captain and former Springbok Joe Van Niekerk is also likely to return. While Toulon may play a brand of rugby that is not pleasing to the eye, they do have a very good kick/chase game and are also very committed in the tackle area. Munster have work to do but are more than capable of winning this one.
Leinster got off to the perfect start with that impressive bonus point win on Saturday and can feel buoyant about aspects of their performance. For the second week in-a-row their forwards provided an excellent set piece platform and with Leo Cullen due to return, that will only get better.
Over the last two seasons their game had centred around a very solid defensive strategy devised by Kurt McQulkin. They became obsessed with that aspect of their game with the result that despite a surfeit of quality game breakers behind the scrum, they ended up with the second lowest number of tries scored in the Magners League last season.
In their opening games this season their defensive organisation was non existent and as a consequence they lost to sides like Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Strange then that the minute they rediscovered their defensive mojo against Munster, their attacking game – no doubt influenced by new coach Joe Schmidt – has also come out of the closet. You will go a long way to see a better try off a scrum that the one engineered by the combined vision, hands and execution of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Sexton, finished with aplomb by Rob Kearney.
That score, a direct product of hard work on the training ground, can work wonders for a teams confidence. Knowing that you have that type of play in your armoury gives a team great belief in tight games.
On Saturday, Leinster must be careful not to get carried away with the fact that they are performing in the brand new Wembley stadium and keep focused on their opposition. Saracens have played there on a number of occasions and even managed to down the colours of South Africa there last November.
Saracens, like Munster, are fighting for their lives after their opening defeat in Clermont and will pose a different challenge than Racing Metro. Their side is backboned by South Africans with outstanding hooker Schalk Britz and No.8 Ernst Joubert are the pick of the bunch. Jamie Heaslip handled Sebastian Chabal with ease last time out but will face a far tougher challenge from the vastly underrated Joubert. Brendan Venter’s side have the capacity to play a varied game with a very good set piece allied to some outstanding runners. They do have a potential weakness in Derik Hougaard at ten and Leinster’s excellent back row need to target him.
The biggest challenge for Leinster may be mental after scaling the heights in successive weekends against Munster and Racing. Getting the opportunity to play in Wembley, however, may help to extract the best from them for a third successive game and the least they can expect is a losing bonus point.
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