Top spot just one big push away

Munster will go into their Heineken Cup pool game at Saracens tomorrow (3pm) having been told they are masters of their own destiny by head coach Rob Penney.

Last Saturday’s required 15-9 victory over the English side at Thomond Park kept the two-time European champions afloat in Pool 1 after the opening-round defeat at Racing Metro put the Reds firmly on the back foot in terms of their quest for a quarter-final spot.

Now all they have to do is go to Watford and win in one of the English Premiership heavyweight’s several backyards. Still waiting to move into their new home in Barnet, Saracens have been itinerants of late, with tomorrow’s game just their third at Vicarage Road this season.

Still, Munster will be under no illusions that all they have to do is turn up and collect the points to break the tie with Saracens at the top of the pool. Director of rugby Mark McCall left Limerick last week smarting at his side’s failure to execute in the set-piece and give their potentially explosive back line any platform. Those errors were compounded by Owen Farrell’s poor return of three kicks from seven penalty attempts and though the frustration was eased significantly by a late penalty to give the visitors a losing bonus point, there is a determination to right the wrongs of a week ago.

McCall clearly feels his side have much more to offer and has rung the changes from last week, moving Farrell from outside centre to fly-half at Charlie Hodgson’s expense and bringing in Richard Wigglesworth at nine in place of Neil de Kock for a new half-back combination, while relegating Ernst Joubert from No 8 to the bench in favour of George Kruis. league convert Joel Tomkins comes in at 13 with David Strettle replacing Chris Wyles on the wing.

“We are level on match points and both teams have the chance to take control of the group going into the final two rounds of matches,” McCall said. “But we have to make sure that our fundamentals and foundations are excellent across the pitch if we are to get the result that we want.”

After an intensely attritional encounter in round three last weekend, where the space Munster look to in order to play their the more expansive side of their game was at a premium, Penney, too, will look to his players to get the basics right, particularly in light of the 17 penalties and three free-kicks they conceded at the hands of referee Pascal Gauzere. At least he will not be appearing again, replaced by another Frenchman, Jerome Garces, and off the officials’ panel completely.

While Gauzere made life difficult for Munster, a lot of their problems were of their own making and, just like the team’s destiny, they have it within their power to control.

Penney will trust mostly the same players, making only one change, in midfield, with Casey Laulala replacing the injured Keith Earls, who emerged from training on Tuesday with a groin injury, to partner James Downey, one of the many standouts on a Limerick night when such performances were necessary.

Another to shine was James Coughlan, who will win his 100th cap tomorrow, and whose commitment to the cause last week will need to be replicated all over the pitch if Munster are to get anything out of this game.

Coughlan did not go in for pool permutations last Saturday, insisting three wins from the remaining three games — Saracens, Edinburgh away, and Racing at home — would see his side through to the quarters. And why not? Last weekend’s victory will have given the inexperienced elements of this team, and there are more than a few, the belief they can operate successfully at the highest level.

It was far from the polished, 80-minute performance they are striving for but there was sufficient intensity and set-piece power and just enough clear thinking to get the job done. They will need even more of the that tomorrow in what will be another stiff examination of whether they can turn that belief into a winning performance. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass that test.


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