HEINEKEN CUP POOL 6:
Munster v Edinburgh
When it comes to the Heineken Cup pool stages, Munster very often save their best for last and against an upwardly mobile Edinburgh side at Thomond Park tomorrow afternoon (12:45pm), the province’s performance levels will have to be pretty close to optimal.
In the 16 seasons since the four-team, six-game pools have been part of the competition structure, Munster have lost just three of their round six encounters, the most recent in 2006-07 when Leicester Tigers made history with a 13-6 win at Thomond Park.
The last six seasons have seen the men in red finish the job as intended with the last two campaigns ending on real highs as Northampton Saints and then Racing Metro were put to the sword.
All the talk this week, outside the Munster camp at least, has been of the province needing a similarly rampant score over Edinburgh tomorrow to secure the bonus-point victory that will give Rob Penney’s side the best possible chance of claiming a home draw for the quarter-finals they reached with a game to spare at Gloucester seven days ago.
And the reasons that chatter has been external to the Munster squad and management are pretty clear.
That they were meant, according to that week’s expectation, to run up a cricket score at Murrayfield in round one last October and came home with a chastening defeat is chief among them.
Subsequent victories for Edinburgh at Gloucester in round four and last week at home to Perpignan are two more and another is that their three wins in Pool 6 give them a live chance of reaching the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals and extending their European rugby campaign beyond the Six Nations.
That would be no mean achievement for head coach Alan Solomons in his first season since taking over from Michael Bradley. Since being surprise semi-finalists under Bradley in 2011-12, Edinburgh have resumed the more customary mantle of also-rans and started this season in similar vein, trundling along at the bottom of the RaboDirect PRO12.
Yet, it is obvious that a corner has been turned and that Edinburgh are coming to Limerick determined to make Munster scrap for every yard and point.
Munster fly-half Ian Keatley was not the only player to have noted: “They have got much better over the course of the season. I think we played them the first round of the Rabo and even from there to the first round of the Heineken Cup, they are just getting better and better, week in, week out.
“Everyone is talking to us that we might need a bonus point, but we are just going out to win the match first because we know how much of a threat they have.
“They still have something to play for, they are still trying to get into the Amlin Cup, so they won’t be coming over to Limerick lightly.”
Keatley’s head coach has also plotted their upward curve since those two early-season encounters in league and Heineken Cup.
“They’re certainly a different bunch than they were four months ago,” Penney said. “They’ve developed a unity and a toughness that is becoming very tough for teams to play against.
“We’ve seen Leinster go down to them, Perpignan, Gloucester away. They should have beaten Glasgow.
“They’re now a legitimate side. Over the last couple of years, they may not have been seen as a big threat, although they did reach the semi-finals two years ago in the Heineken. They’ve got a little recipe going on there. They’ve developed something that’s starting to become a bit special and it’s a bit nerve-wracking when you’re seeing it unfolding and from this perspective we could probably do without that now.
“We have to respect that and we’ll have to be in a good place to combat it.”
Combat is probably the right word, for Edinburgh are an aggressive, tough-tackling and defensively tight outfit with the best tackle success rate (91%) of any side in the Heineken Cup this season and the tournament’s top tackler in flanker Cornell du Preez, with 71 tackles in five games and 400 minutes of action.
Even in defeating Munster at home in October, Edinburgh missed only four tackles and Penney is aware of the challenge.
“They’ve got a team that’s full of warriors. Just tenacious, they know what they’re trying to do and they do it efficiently. They give it 100% in every endeavour. Eight, nine, 10, 15, they’ve got people that are able to dictate the tactics and drive them around the paddock and put them in the right area of the ground and build pressure.”
That was certainly the case in victory over Perpignan on Saturday at Murrayfield when Edinburgh defended superbly, nullified Perpignan’s maul and put pressure on the French side’s defence, forcing errors and earning points in the process, spearheaded by an aggressive, ball-carrying back row of du Preez, Roddy Grant and David Denton. Not flashy just effective.
Yet, if Edinburgh are on the up, so too are Munster, who in Keatley’s opinion put in their “first real start to finish performance to date so far,” in beating Gloucester at Kingsholm last Saturday evening.
It was, the fly-half said, “an all-round game with our forwards combining with our backs” and there will be ten of tomorrow’s starting team further bouyed by inclusion this week in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for next week’s Wolfhounds game, back at Gloucester, and the Six Nations beyond.
Edinburgh may well have something to play for but there is just as much at stake for the Munster players this weekend, let alone the ones omitted by Schmidt.
Munster can do effective just as well as any team and expect them to show it tomorrow lunchtime. It may just lead to that bonus point.
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