Conor Murray has helped steer Munster to two Heineken Cup semi-finals and though the chances of making it a third seem far slimmer this season, the Ireland scrum-half insists the belief remains that his province can still be European contenders.
“It’s a long way to the final. You have to have that belief,” Murray said. “But we’re starting off with a new coaching staff and a new game-plan, the players have huge belief that we can execute that quite well. And we’re starting to, against Leinster was the time when we really dominated the breakdown and really looked good. Other games we’ve played quite well.
“So the game-plan is there for us. Did we punch above our weight? I don’t think so.
“We could get up for the big games in the last two years and then in other games we were too inconsistent in putting away what we would regard as weaker sides. We’re looking for that consistency this year. The belief is there in our players that we can execute the game-plan and be contenders. It’s week by week we’re judging ourselves. And this week is a huge week.”
Such is the intensity of the competition in the Champions Cup that even with an additional best runner-up progressing to the last eight from the five pools, tomorrow’s outing at AJ Bell Stadium is in need of just as much focus as the round five trip to Saracens’ Allianz Park and there really is no margin for error in the six group games between now and January.
“Definitely not,” Murray agreed, “and there’s a huge bite to training this week already. Everyone knows your game has to be that bit sharper. The level of player you meet goes up in this competition. Going to Sale, a proud English team, we know they’re going to raise their game. We’re expecting them to play their best game this year.
“They’re going to want to have a pop off us so we need to be ready for what they’re going to throw at us. There’s an extra edge already this week.”
Much has been made of Munster’s Guinness Pro12 victory at Leinster a fortnight ago but for the squad, the follow-up win at home to Scarlets last Friday off a six-day turnaround was just as important as they strive to banish the inconsistency both Murray and Dave Kilcoyne have referred to this week.
“It’s key for us,” Murray said. “We performed well against Leinster. Discipline was an issue in that game and we can’t afford to have four yellow cards again. It was important we kept the winning streak going last week, albeit the performance wasn’t up to the standard we wanted it. That’s the consistency we’re trying to strive for week on week.
“Then again, is it hard to do that a week after Leinster? There’s no problem getting up for that game but then you’re coming home to play Scarlets. There is a natural drop but we need to find it within ourselves to perform consistently. This week there’ll be no problem getting up for it. It’s the other weeks we need to focus on. There’ll be no problem this week.”
Of course, they have been in this same good place before and come a cropper on the opening weekend of European action, not least the last two seasons when moments of individual brain freeze have contributed to defeats at Racing Metro, step forward Mr Murray, and Edinburgh.
“It hasn’t been mentioned, but thank you,” Murray said when mention was made. “Trying to think positively! With the two wins behind us, there’s a good feeling amongst us. And with the younger players gaining experience, there are lads who’ve had moments like mine, or in Edinburgh last year, there was a bad moment for another player (JJ Hanrahan), so we should have a better way of dealing with it.”
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