George Hook: Victory over Stade a tall order for Munster without the killer instinct of old
Published 08/01/2016 | 02:30
Tomorrow, Munster aim to preserve their interest in this season's Champions Cup with victory in Stade Francais. Last weekend's win in Ulster was a welcome boost for an under-fire Anthony Foley, but it was hardly cause for major celebration.
Stemming the tide on what could have potentially been the worst run of results in the province's history shouldn't give reason to break out the champagne. The win was one small positive after a string of disappointing performances.
Yet again, Munster's attack was disjointed and incoherent. They spent the majority of the first half in Ravenhill inside their own 22 two and on the back foot. But for some resolute and, at times, breathtaking defence, Ulster could have been out of sight by the half-time whistle.
Serious problems remain with the Munster attack and until there is a more cohesive game plan, it is difficult to see where their strike-rate might improve.
Foley continually berates Munster's poor decision-making in key attacking positions, but his excuses merely serve to expose the limitations of his own coaching ticket.
Not so long ago, Munster's ruthlessness in capitalising on an attacking platform was a hallmark of their two-time Heineken Cup-winning teams. Similarly, Leinster from 2009 displayed an enviable ability to go for the jugular in situations where a try looked on.
Those killer instincts did not happen by accident. I am quite certain that if you asked players from either of those successful cup-winning squads about the secret behind their confidence and self-belief, they would attest to constant repetition of pressure situations on the training paddock.
It stands to reason that if players are used to making split-second decisions in prime attacking territory, that it soon becomes second nature. Instinctive attacking play cuts out poor decisions.
If Munster players are incapable of finishing off try-scoring opportunities this season, one must question what it is that the coaches are doing in training?
Stade Francais have endured a tough run of late, though last weekend's last-gasp win against Toulouse, coupled with the return to form of Sergio Parisse after recovering from injury, just might spark an upturn in their own fortunes.
An unwillingness by coach Gonzalo Quesada to settle on a consistent half-back pairing has resulted in mixed fortunes in the Top 14, where Will Genia, Julien Dupuy, Jules Plisson and Morne Steyn have been chopping and changing over the past few weeks.
Genia and Plisson, seemingly top of the pecking order in their respective positions, have only started three matches together since the Australian scrum-half returned from the World Cup.
If Plisson starts tomorrow, Munster can expect a high-tempo Stade attack. On his day, the France fly-half has the pace and confidence to tear open opposition defences, but he can be vulnerable to unforced errors as a result.
Munster's back-row must get at Plisson and cut down his time and space on the ball.
On the other hand, the selection of Steyn would offer a more measured, tactical approach for the home side and if Quesada decides to go with the South Africa international, it would perhaps indicate that Stade would be more comfortable taking Munster on up front.
If that proves to be the case, Munster's discipline becomes hugely important. Steyn's ability to kick penalties remains his primary weapon.
If Munster get on the wrong side of the referee, Steyn won't need a second invitation to score points.
After a tough few weeks, Ian Keatley showed admirable composure amid a hostile Belfast crowd last Saturday and a repeat performance by the Munster fly-half tomorrow would go a long way towards settling his side into the game.
The battle between Ireland's newest back-row recruit, CJ Stander, and Parisse should be worth the entrance fee alone. If Joe Schmidt wants a gauge on just how good the South African-born No 8 is, he will never have a better chance.
Indeed, Stander's hopes of making Ireland's Six Nations squad next month could depend on how he fronts up against one of the best players in the world.
It is not impossible that Munster can leave Paris with a win, but on the evidence of their last six matches, even with that victory in Ulster, it looks a tall order.
And at the very least, Munster will have to take any try-scoring opportunities that come their way.
A paltry return of just three tries in their last five games doesn't inspire much confidence that they can manage it.