Batten down the hatches, there’s a tempest coming.
As Mother Nature does her worst to Ireland through her wild child Storm Brian, Munster are also about to get hit at Thomond Park this evening, in the form of Leone Nakawara and his Racing 92 cohorts.
The relentless pressure that Champions Cup rugby brings each season can be as devastating as a hurricane to some teams and they do not even have to be in a fragile state to feel its force. Such is the level of competition in European rugby’s premier club competition that just one loose fixture can bring the whole structure down.
It happened to Racing last season when they took their eye off the ball in the aftermath of their joyous French title win and promptly lost five of their six pool games, a sorry return for a star-studded side that had also reached the Champions Cup final the previous May.
That should act as a warning to Munster this evening, six days after escaping from Castres with a precious couple of points having scraped a draw in southern France.
While it was a performance that improved on the previous week’s league reverse to Leinster in Dublin, there is still much to improve upon if Rassie Erasmus’s side is to avoid a home defeat that would be all but certain to kill off aspirations of knockout rugby later in the competition.
Director of rugby Erasmus recognises that Racing has the firepower to cause all manner of problems for Munster if the home side’s execution is not as nailed down as the Thomond Park fixtures and fittings were during last Monday’s visit from Hurricane Ophelia.
The Parisians knocked over Leicester Tigers 22-18 in the French capital last weekend, leading the competition for round one in both turnovers, 11, and offloads, 26, according to official Champions Cup statistics. Nakawara led the way in the latter category, contributing 10 offloads by himself, to leave Erasmus under no illusions about the challenge ahead.
“We are in for a tough one,” he said this week.
“If we play like we played last weekend (against Castres) we won’t get points out of this game. We were naive at times, giving them opportunities where there is nothing on for us to try and take out certain positions on the field or circumstances and we just pushed our luck a little bit there.
“If we do that against Racing we will be naive, we won’t get any points out of the game, so we will have to have a massive step up.”
Racing, too, threaten to be even better equipped than last week, with the luxury of recalling a fit-again Dan Carter at fly-half to partner France scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and bringing in Antonie Claassen at No.8 and front rowers Eddy Ben Arous and Camille Chat to bolster a pack that was not suffering too much without them.
Claassen’s opposite number CJ Stander knows a repeat of the Castres performance will not suffice.
“We just need to be smarter in the way we play, make sure we play in the right areas of the pitch and use the opportunities we create and don’t make silly mistakes like we did at the end of the game. We gave them the opportunity to win it and we were lucky not to concede three points in the last two minutes.
“It’s going to be another physical battle for 80 minutes (against Racing). Everyone needs to step up in their own area and we have to make sure we look after our set-piece and play in the right areas. Racing is a team that if you give them a bit of a loose game they’ll get into you and get points.
They like to pounce on the ball and they’re a team that loves big moments. They’ll take a scrum and push you over the ball or they’ll steal your lineout ball when you think you’re going to maul.
They’ll come in with a big poach on you and try and get three points out of it, so we know they’re a team of big moments and that’s something we have to clamp down on, on our side, to make sure they can’t get into the game with those big moments.”
Racing, though, are far from perfect Stander will know that. For all the talk of turnovers, they conceded 16 against Leicester at Stade Yves du Manoir, one more than sloppy Munster in Castres, and their defence coach Ronan O’Gara, writing in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, conceded he did not know whether his players would have the work-rate to match Munster’s over 80 minutes this evening.
O’Gara also acknowledged the “Axel factor” that is sure to be evident at Thomond Park before and after kick-off. It was a year ago in the same, albeit sunnier stadium, that Munster, fuelled by the grief of their fallen head coach Anthony Foley, whom they had buried just 24 hours earlier, put Glasgow Warriors to the sword with a performance of fever-pitch intensity and emotion.
It was the launchpad of the team’s heartache-driven resurrection from the depths of consecutive seasons of European failure that would take them to the Champions Cup semi-finals.
It is unrealistic to expect a similar reaction 12 months on, but Foley’s presence will be felt by his former players at Thomond Park, and the minute’s applause before kick-off that is planned in Axel’s memory may just ensure Racing are not allowed to dismiss it either.
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