Friday 24 March 2017

Murray returns for Munster's key double dates

Conor Murray is fit for selection
Conor Murray is fit for selection
David Kelly

David Kelly

On paper, tomorrow may represent merely round two of Munster's European qualification joust but in everyone's heads it is round three.

The Champions Cup has been understandably skewed by postponements post-Paris and Munster's Pool 4 is no different; after an opening exercise in grim accountancy against hapless Treviso, the province remained idle in week two.

Leicester Tigers, tomorrow's visitors, had already thumped Stade 33-20 at home and, while their chief qualification rivals were both kicking their heels, doubled their points tally with another romp in northern Italy.

So, although Munster may have a game in hand, the two-time European champions are already feeling the weight of numbers ahead of this traditional December back-to-back sequence.

Even though there are huge games beyond this one, taken in isolation, tomorrow's is arguably a season-defining 80 minutes.

"Well, look, the same game last year was against Clermont at home and we lost that and when we got to round six that was the game that cost us getting out of our group," says Foley.

"Obviously this is only our second game in Europe but it's still round three and the first of our two head-to-heads. It's important that we focus on this game and make sure that we drive our standards. You know, 7.45 on a Saturday evening in Thomond Park is normally a very good time to play a game."

Not that Munster have had much experience of such a timing, post-dating as it does the introduction of BT Sport; their traditional tea-time slot would have ensured a packed house; 20,000 tickets have been sold but with another storm forecast for the battered outskirts, all may not show up.

Whatever the forecast, these back-to-back games are usually an accurate enough barometer in terms of one's qualification prospects; the hot favourites can often hit the maximum points total but a minimum mark is nearly always an absolute necessity.

Ironically, Leicester and Stade are the only clubs to have bucked the trend in recent years. Leicester reached the knockouts without winning either of their crucial back-to-back matches in 2010-'11, the two-time tournament champions earning a losing bonus point in a 24-19 away loss to Perpignan before a 22-22 draw at Welford Road.

However, they went on to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the best pool runners-up with 22 points, but their total of three points from the games in Rounds 3 and 4 remains the lowest of any club to have reached the knockout stages in recent years.

Two years earlier, Stade managed to top their pool despite a relatively meagre four-point haul from the back-to-back games; a 23-13 loss to Ulster in Ravenhill before a 29-16 home win.

Predominantly, quarter-final qualifiers will have emerged from these games with a superior head-to-head record, whether via match points, try tallies or points aggregate.

Not doing so is detrimental to one's qualification health.

In the last 16 seasons, Munster have completed eight doubles in December.

Even on the occasions they traded wins with their December opponents, Munster always emerged with a superior head-to-head record over the two games, albeit they and Saracens finished 28-28 with the same tries total two seasons ago.

Last season, an unwanted double - successive defeats to Clermont - effectively eliminated them.

Five points will be minimum target privately set by Foley and his brains trust.

However, given the skewed fixture list - and the fact that this particular tie has never thrown up a home winner in the pool stages - getting the first four of that five at home is utterly non-negotiable.

Their prospects have been boosted as, based on the selection of Munster's 'A' team, Conor Murray, BJ Botha and Mike Sherry have all been passed fit to be named when Foley unveils his side at midday.

Irish Independent

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