Tony Ward: Fortress Thomond in need of repair
Published 08/12/2012 | 05:00
This afternoon, in former fortress Thomond Park (and I urge realism on this count), Rob Penney's new generation Munster take up the European gauntlet against top-class English Premiership opposition.
Saracens have been down this track before – who can forget the 31-30 miracle match on January 8, 2000? But this is a different time and, under Mark McCall, Saracens have created a multi-talented group underpinned by a hard-winning edge.
The north Londoners are way ahead of Munster at this point in time, but the Thomond factor on European days still has a hugely relevant part to play if not quite providing the seven-point start it once did.
So while it always worries me to see players make grand pronouncements ahead of big matches, I fully understand where Conor Murray is coming from when he highlights the need to re-establish Fortress Thomond as the bastion it had been for so long.
On the subject of the Ireland scrum-half, he was in many ways the unsung hero of the November series. No backline sparks unless it is receiving quality ball from its scrum-half and pack.
Murray was unfairly pilloried by all and sundry for what was undoubtedly a silly match-losing mistake against Racing Metro in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, but the manner in which he has bounced back has been mightily impressive.
He appears to have the type of calm – yet competitive – demeanour that marks him out as a potential leader when Munster, like Ireland, are in dire need of just that.
Indeed, of all the changes taking place under Penney, it is those at the heart of the side – specifically numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 – that provide much hope.
And here I would urge caution and patience to the faithful. Even at their zenith, when David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Anthony Foley ruled, there was nothing like the back-row options developing under the new coaching regime (including Foley) now.
Take any three from James Coughlan, CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, Paddy Butler, Niall Ronan, Dave O'Callaghan, Sean Dougall and Barry O'Mahony and you've some combination of back-three forwards equipped to play the high-tempo, off loading game the Penney way.
There will be pain, perhaps again today, but the transition IS taking place.
Meanwhile, for Leinster – in search of that unprecedented three-in-a-row of titles – the threat in the fortress that certainly is Stade Marcel Michelin needs little elaboration.
Win tomorrow and it's hat-trick mission on, lose without a bonus, and it could well be mission impossible.
Put simply, if ever there was a weekend for keeping the money in your pocket, this is it.