Saturday 25 March 2017

Paul O'Connell: 'Munster fighting for everything'

Captain O’Connell in no mood to let fired-up Scarlets halt Euro revival

After recovering from injury, outside
centre Keith Earls is back in the Munster
team for the first time in six weeks
After recovering from injury, outside centre Keith Earls is back in the Munster team for the first time in six weeks
David Kelly

David Kelly

They say it's the most wonderful time of the year. But also the most stressful.

Heineken Cup supporters are not immune. With every significant stride made in the competition, there is always the fear that one slip could undo all the good work.

Munster command their destiny at the moment, but Tony McGahan and his players deeply appreciate that one false move could undermine every ounce of delicate rehabilitation since last year's shock elimination at this stage.

Of course, Munster would never have refused a 3-0 record thus far, regardless of the measly points differential. But stitched therein is an appreciation that on each occasion, only a cigarette paper separated defeat from victory.

"We're well aware there has been a bit of luck in all that," said captain Paul O'Connell.

CONVINCING

"They haven't been the most convincing wins of all time. We've had to fight for everything we've got. It's obviously not ideal to be winning by such narrow margins, but I'm happy with how much we're fighting for everything."

The return of key established stars -- Keith Earls is surprisingly parachuted into the No 13 jersey after just a week's training following a six-week lay-off, Donncha O'Callaghan elbows unlucky lock Donnacha Ryan -- hints at a club still racked by an element of self-doubt.

Opposing them is a team who themselves have suffered the slings and arrows of this wonderful competition's vicissitudes. Soaring after two games, it took just 80 minutes in the back yard to leave them fighting for survival.

Nigel Davies' side betrayed a callow exterior many of us felt Munster could stealthily expose; this week, they return for a second bite with their play-maker relegated to full-back, and Stephen Jones at out-half to ensure territory, not frippery, informs their approach.

No better venue -- as the Toreador song booms out at the unfeasibly early kick-off time -- for a coach to echo O'Connell and exhort his team to stand up and fight.

"It's quite an important moment for these players on Sunday," Davies insisted.

"They've developed. There's a huge amount of potential in them, but they're not Scarlets' 'youngsters' any longer. They have to be able to produce performances in the very top games in Europe -- and this is one.

"It's time to stand up and be counted and take that step now; we can either be a great team that just falls short in Europe or one that is able to win the top European encounters with the talent we have.

"I believe in this team and it has a lot more to show, but individually now is the time to step it up and they know that. We can either accept where we are or be hard on ourselves.

"We've had a very focused and honest week and the team know that they won't get a better opportunity to make a statement to define what it is to be a Scarlets player and team, to demonstrate their ability and mental and physical strength collectively."

Stirring stuff indeed, albeit slightly undermined when one hears that George North remains absent and, with Iestyn Thomas and Aaron Shingler also succumbing to failed fitness tests, their pack may be even more muted.

Munster, in contrast, can afford to slip combative warhorses like O'Callaghan and Denis Leamy into their back five to replace Ryan and the injured Peter O'Mahony.

The serious business is underlined by the absence of retiring John Hayes, on the bench last week -- the evidence of his short west Wales cameo enough to see him ousted by Stephen Archer.

Leamy's return offers him an opportunity to lay down a marker for a coach he has not always managed to convince of his full worth, although he has rarely had a lengthy injury-free run to do so.

"Denis certainly has a huge impact on the squad in the manner in which he leads in the physical stakes in our game," offered McGahan.

"It's a big part of what we're about, being physical in the contact areas. Denis has been a leader in the Munster pack. He had an excellent start last season and he had his first full pre-season in a number of years.

"He captained the group through that period. Then injury and form affected him and that cost him his ability to force his way back in. Opportunities for him have been limited again this season with the form of others.

"But in the last three games, he has been the catalyst for us to close out some really tight games."

While Leamy's start was well flagged, Earls' return is indicative of Munster's paltry resources behind the scrum due to injury and, in Will Chambers' case, a clear impatience with his ability to assimilate with the team pattern.

Although others prefer him in the back three, the Moyross man prefers outside centre and this weekend begins a jostling for a green jersey in that 13 spot, particularly with an eye on events in the RDS this evening.

However, one senses that his will be a decorative influence on a game that will be decided in the throes of the pack, an area of Munster dominance that has pleasingly reasserted itself this season.

After Laurie Fisher's belated departure, Anthony Foley's influence has seen the side's breakdown work become more accurate and relevant to each referee; hence the vast improvement in discipline, aside from occasional blow-outs viz Leinster away in the Pro12.

Better still has been the transformation at scrum-time, a facet of play which contributed significantly to their sorry exit from the Heineken Cup at this stage 12 months ago, when defeat to Ospreys in round four ravaged their hopes.

"The importance of the scrum is massive now," agreed O'Connell. "You can turn over a line-out and it's tapped back and your scrum-half has to dive on it and it tends to be quite scrappy ball.

"But you turn over a scrum or dominate the scrum now, very often it's a penalty and it's either 60 metres down the pitch or it's a shot at goal.

"It released pressure for us at one end last week, and won us a few points the other."

Munster's pre-eminence up front will backbone the expected victory. In age-old fashion, winning will eradicate stress. Only then may the lack of bonus points niggle at them.

It's a problem Munster fans will gladly accept if it means they're still involved in their favourite competition.

Verdict: Munster

Munster -- D Hurley; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, B Botha, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), D Leamy, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, M Horan, S Archer, D Ryan, T O'Donnell, T O'Leary, I Keatley, D Barnes.

Scarlets -- R Priestland; L Williams, S Williams, J Davies, S Lamont; S Jones, G Davies; R Jones, M Rees (capt), R Thomas, L Reed, D Welch, R McCusker, J Edwards, B Morgan. Reps: K Owens, P John, D Manu, S Timani, K Murphy, T Knoyle, G Maule, V Iongi.

Ref -- D Pearson (England).

Munster v Scarlets

Live, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 12.45

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