HEINEKEN CUP POOL SIX:
Perpignan v Munster
They have been here before, bought the t-shirt and gone home with a victory.
They know what lies in wait, from the vociferous crowd to the added intensity of a team transformed on home soil and they are expecting the unexpected.
They are also acutely aware that improvements must be made if they are to get anything out of this crucial European fixture and stay on course for a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
And yet, just as they reminded us at Thomond Park last Sunday afternoon, knowing what to do and going out and doing it are two completely different things. Munster have to execute at Stade Aimé Giral today (3:40pm Irish time), because they will not get away with the inaccuracies they committed in Limerick now they have transferred to French soil.
As good as the result was last weekend in beating travel-sick Perpignan 38-8 to collect a winning bonus point which leaves them two points clear at the top of Pool 6 following three of the six rounds, Munster have been at pains to point out that the level of performance was not where it will need to be if they are to repeat the heroics of December 2009 when the Reds trounced the Catalans 37-14.
Forget Perpignan’s passivity in defence and ignore the lacklustre approach to the breakdown. Now they are back on home soil in front of more than 14,000 passionate supporters of the Blood and Gold, the French Top 14 side, who have won 22 of their last 23 home games in the Heineken Cup, will be a very different animal than the one that slunk away from Thomond Park six days ago.
In fact, aside from pointing out the error of the players’ ways during that victory, the Munster coaching team will have ignored the video of that game in terms of scouting the opposition and instead turned to Perpignan’s game the previous week, at home in the Top 14 to Clermont Auvergne.
The Catalans may have been beaten by Clermont but they went down fighting in a game that was not decided until the dying minutes. That is certainly the DVD that has left a lasting impression on front rower Dave Kilcoyne.
“They had a great scrum, they’re huge and physical, they mauled an incredible amount and competed at all the breakdowns and pushed Clermont very hard and probably deserved to win the game,” Kilcoyne said.
“Any side that can do that to Clermont, you know they’re a serious team. To go down to their backyard and just expect the same result as we got at the weekend, that just isn’t going to happen. So it’s about going over and having that mental strength to know that whatever happens, they’re going to be a different side at home.”
Munster captain Peter O’Mahony is under no illusions about the contest his players can expect and the challenge they will have to meet head on.
“If you’re going to win in France, you’re going to have to work hard for it,” O’Mahony said. “There’s going to be sore bodies and blood and bruises and all sorts of things afterwards and that’s probably how you judge if you’ve won or not, how sore you are and how physical you have played. Even how much worse you are the morning afterwards is a good judge of it, so it’s going to be bodies on the line stuff.”
Munster’s last win in France came two seasons ago in Toulouse, when Ronan O’Gara drop-kicked the winning points against Castres in overtime to seal a 27-24 victory just a week after he had broken the hearts of Northampton in the same manner.
But though the European victories away from home have numbered just two from six attempts since Rob Penney took over as head coach, at Edinburgh in the pool stages last January and Harlequins in last April’s quarter-final, the New Zealander believes his Munster side is not as travel-shy as the record appears. There are plausible reasons, he argued, for the losses to Racing Metro in last season’s pool and Clermont in the semi-final as well as this October’s reverse at Murrayfield, which have undermined otherwise decent performances from an evolving side.
“If you look at the losses, one of them was a Heineken Cup semi-final against probably the best team in Europe. One of them was a last-minute brain explosion by Conor [Murray] at Racing and one of them was a last-minute brain explosion by JJ [Hanrahan] at Edinburgh.
“So if you put those sort of things together... and we’ve actually done pretty well, I would think, in the European competition, given where the team’s at. We’re still building consistency but I wouldn’t say that just because you’re losing a game, doesn’t mean you’re inconsistent. If we’d been walloped in any of those games, it would be a different story but we haven’t been.
“I’m not trying to justify our performances but I’m not too disappointed with our consistency. Our consistency of performance in games is probably more so as opposed to the outcome.”
And there’s the rub. Munster have to be sharper and more streetwise that they have been on recent trips overseas. They can no longer afford the brain freezes that have put them on the back foot for this and last season’s qualifying stages. The mistakes have to stop because this a Perpignan side that promises to be a lot more ruthless at Aimé Giral than they were in Ireland last Sunday.
The breakdown has to stay as intense and accurate as it has been, the fluency in attack has to increase and the handling errors reduced and the lineout has to resume normal service with the driving maul set to be a key battleground in Perpignan.
Munster have to execute.
The big picture...
Arsenal players Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil showed their Munster colours at training yesterday (above).
Podolski tweeted the picture along with a message for Rob Penney’s side, who face Perpignan this afternoon: Good luck @Munsterrugby tomor V @usap_officiel. Run hard, pass soft. #kickaheadanyhead #handswilldoit #poldi #aha
We suspect ex-Munster hooker Jerry Flannery provided the props.
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