Tuesday 26 September 2017

Leicester Tigers sense vulnerability at Thomond Park

Anthony Foley will be hoping to lift the mood around Thomond Park as attention turns back to European competition
Anthony Foley will be hoping to lift the mood around Thomond Park as attention turns back to European competition
David Kelly

David Kelly

They say it's not the despair but the hope that kills sports fans.

But it is not the hope that is killing Munster supporters any more. Or the despair. It's the apathy.

For a decade and more, the brave and faithful disciples surfed upon a surfeit of both hope and despair; they were also intimately acquainted with the suffocating immediacy of agony and ecstasy.

There was a time when you didn't need to check the pulse of a Munster fan. Now it's difficult to find much signs of life.

An air of gloom is all-pervasive. Beyond their front door, Munster's current status provokes, amongst neutrals at least, a distracted shrug of the shoulders.

Mercifully, there remains a rabid rump of red-shirted devotees who will back their team regardless of the manifold economic and geographic obstacles planted in their way.

But these are a dwindling number.

Successive defeats to Connacht and Dragons accurately reflect moribund Munster of late; Thomond Park, which once had a reputation as being utterly inhospitable to all visitors, is now almost as hostile to its own kind given the continued slump in attendances.

Gloom

The gloom seems pervasive.

On a day when Munster's next opponents in Europe, fabled foes Leicester Tigers, secured the signatures of some of their leading lights, Munster fans begin yet another week of uncertainty as to the precise future plans of some of their leading lights.

Leicester yesterday tied up millions of pounds worth of prime beef in the forms of Ben Youngs, Freddy Burns and, most significantly, the long-term injured England centre Manu Tuilagi - whom Leicester will pay €600,000 a year.

Munster, in stark contrast, will be helpless if their sexiest playing asset - Simon Zebo - decides to pack his tent and head to France.

The province are trapped within a financial straitjacket that's tied firmly shut with a Gordian knot. Their debt on Thomond runs north of €9m and, with fewer bodies turning up there - aside from fewer matches being played there, another problem - it is a vicious circle.

With the immense presence of Paul O'Connell gone, it is ever more difficult to know whether Munster are undergoing a predictable period of transition or else an interregnum of indefinable length.

A depleted Leicester who, despite taking an "educated risk" with their team selection, still snaffled a try bonus win from their weekend domestic action.

Munster failed to engineer any enthusiasm from their away-day.

They huffed and puffed but rarely convinced as a jobbing, doughty Dragons side actually pulled away late on in the piece to ensure Anthony Foley's men didn't even bring a bonus home with them.

They played some decent rugby at times; the Zebo try that wasn't offered a glimpse of some nice football but, like a microcosm of the season as a whole, there just wasn't enough of it.

"We want to get our heads down and make sure that we get a performance at home against Leicester and make sure we stop the rot," says Foley who will know more about the condition of BJ Botha (concussion) and Conor Murray (foot) when they return to the training paddock today.

This week opens a set of six defining fixtures for Munster with interpros against Ulster and Leinster either side of their European back-to-backs with Leicester and the re-configured dates with Stade Francais.

David Wallace, amongst others, believes that Munster may have unwittingly benefited from the Stade postponement.

"If we met Stade Francais later on and they have lost a few games, they could be in a different psychological frame of mind - maybe focusing on the Top 14," is his reasoning. "So having that away game later on might be a little bit easier, if Stade Francais are out of it."

Not, however, if Munster are also out of it. Leicester arrive in Limerick with ten points on the board already and, even if the token Italian fall guys heighten the prospect of a second side coming out of this pool, few would bet a mortgage - especially a Thomond Park mortgage - on that team being Munster on current form.

Five successive defeats in Ireland will arm Richard Cockerill's side against complacency yet there is a sense that the English side are already casting their eye towards a bigger picture in 2016.

"If we could win both Munster games and then have Treviso at home, we could go into the Stade away game at the end of our group knowing exactly where we are at in terms of quarter-final permutations," says cocky Cockerill, barely taking one month at a time, never mind one game.

Munster are desperate for a restorative performance and result; the old new place should, at least, be rocking despite the inconveniently late kick-off.

As much as Thomond needs to be a special home fit for heroes, the same heroes need to produce something worthy of their surroundings, a point Foley acknowledged only by the same caveat.

"Being at home will be an advantage if we can get the stadium rocking and the players turn up to perform," said Foley, who was in the Munster squad that lost its proud unbeaten home record in Europe when Leicester won here in 2007.

"We hope to have an atmosphere worthy of a European Cup game and in the past it's been the performance of the players that has created that atmosphere. We need to have that against Leicester."

Almost nine years on from that seismic setback against the Tigers, that need is arguably a more urgent requirement than merely hope.

Irish Independent

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