It was not so long ago that you had to wait until a Saturday night to get a slice of must-watch X-Factor.
Yet while the wannabe stars on Simon Cowell’s talent show no longer grab the limelight like they used to, a near sell-out crowd at Thomond Park this afternoon will be treated to a genuine offering of that indescribable, unquantifiable quality that puts bums on seats, sends pulses racing and demands full attention for 80-plus minutes.
Munster versus Leicester on the European stage needs no hard-sell. Send 30 sacks of spuds out with their respective jerseys on and it would still constitute a marquee fixture. Yet today’s Champions Cup Pool 1 clash in Limerick has so much more appeal to it than simply a meeting of former two-time Heineken Cup winners.
This is a contest between two teams with more than history behind them, even if recent battles mean there are scores to be settled on Munster’s part. There is momentum in both camps. The home side are unbeaten in six games and leading the Guinness PRO12. The visitors are unbeaten in the English Premiership since October and up to fourth in the table following their derby win over Northampton last weekend.
And then there is that star talent, which has the potential to turn this match into a thriller.
With his full complement of Irish internationals available again after the November Tests, Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus can name the same starting XV which gave the South African his first Champions Cup victory in October, when the province, fuelled by grief a day after head coach Anthony Foley’s funeral, pummelled Glasgow for a bonus-point win against all odds on an emotional day at Thomond.
Which means Munster will welcome back some serious firepower to their backline in the form of Irish heroes Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls as well as fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal, man of the match against Glasgow. There are two further changes, with the Munster pack boosted by the returns of CJ Stander to number 8, and Donnacha Ryan in the second row.
With Erasmus downplaying Munster’s winning run and preferring to highlight the flaws in his side’s PRO12 win at Glasgow last weekend, he reserved his superlatives for Leicester. They may be missing England tighthead Dan Coles due to injury but Richard Cockerill welcomes back his country’s November Man of the Series Ben Youngs to scrum-half, his brother Tom Youngs at hooker and a centre for whom the term X factor is synonymous, Manu Tuilagi.
“They’re a very sharp team, well organised and they’re very physical,” Erasmus said of the Tigers. “Tactically they are going to be a great challenge. They’ve got a great balance between running and kicking and defending and attacking and all those X factor players from Tuilagi right through to both hookers.”
Tuilagi’s wrecking ball style, great hands and wonderful feet make the England centre a difficult player to handle and though he is only finding his way back to fitness following a groin injury, Erasmus knows he will be a handful.
“I don’t think you should beat around the bush, if a fella like that runs at you it is going to be a challenge so you are going to have to man up and tackle him. Make sure your systems are in place, and if one or two players can stop him... But there are also 10 or 12 other players who have the X factor as well. If you focus too much on one player, it will bite you but certainly he will be a hell of a threat to us.”
With their opening round game at Racing 92 postponed, the five points Munster earned with 14 men a week later against the Warriors sent them to the top of the pool, a point ahead of Glasgow, who had hammered Leicester in round one at Scotstoun, and the Tigers, who bounced back from that defeat to beat Racing at Welford Road.
So although the Englishmen will have travelled to Limerick with little fear given their superiority over Munster in the home and away games at the same stage of the competition 12 months ago, that big round-one loss at Glasgow will also be in the back of their minds.
Munster are on the front foot again and will not be as ineffective as a year ago. Yet, this will also be the toughest examination they have faced since Erasmus arrived. Failure will give serious pause for thought ahead of next Saturday’s return in the East Midlands. Pass it, though, and the juggernaut will start to gather some irresistible pace.
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