Sunday 25 June 2017

Munster need to find momentum in Dragons clash

Andrew Conway
Andrew Conway
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The last time Munster took on Leicester in Thomond Park it was when Ireland's most famous provincial ground had one single deck stand, and was open on the other three sides. The new version still has a throwback to its predecessor - more than half the punters get soaked when it rains - but not a lot else remains in either camp to remind us of when both teams were the best in Europe.

Two of the Tigers' playing staff are still on the field, Marcos Ayerza and Jordan Crane, while Geordan Murphy has moved onto the coaching staff. There are the same number in common in the red corner, with Anthony Foley, Jerry Flannery and Mick O'Driscoll, all now in tracksuits. As for Andrew Conway, the likely Munster full back on Saturday, he had not even sat his Leaving Cert in Dublin when these teams made for the most compelling match up in that season's pool phase.

"You have to win your home games but you also have to perform consistently - you can't just turn it on," he says of the battle to get to the knockouts now. "You might pull a result out of the hat every so often and get a result you don't deserve, but it's going to catch up with you."

Oddly enough back then each side lost their home games in this tie, and both still qualified - with Munster as the runners up. Defeat in that match at the fag end of the pool campaign cost Munster a home draw in the quarters, and they went on to lose away to Scarlets.

In the interim Leicester have made a decent fist of keeping their heads above water. They were finalists that season, and again two years later (beaten by Leinster), and have qualified for the knockouts in three of the five seasons since.

For Munster it would be a few years later when the downturn arrived. Their awesome run of consistency came to an end in 2011, the first time in 13 years they had failed to get out of the pool. What perhaps some don't appreciate is how well they have done in the four seasons since to qualify for the knockouts, twice getting to semi-finals, despite the wholesale makeover of their squad.

Their plan this time round was to generate some gas in the opener against Treviso and use it to overcome Stade Francais in the second round. Now, thanks to the postponement of that game, they're looking at almost starting over, and against a side who had won six from their last seven coming into this weekend.

All of which makes this afternoon in Newport against the Dragons an especially important event. To have had their European schedule interrupted, and then lose two Pro 12 games on the trot, would tear the backside out of a form line that read six from seven in the league, before losing to Connacht last weekend, and one from one in the Champions Cup.

With only two wins to their name in the Pro 12 the Dragons are hardly a stellar outfit, but for many it's the least attractive trip on the circuit, and thus open to calamity. Munster's record there over the years is 50 per cent, so you can imagine the pre-match speech this afternoon from Anthony Foley.

For Les Kiss the build up to the visit of Toulouse will be hard to manage. The scale of the reverse against Saracens last month has left Ulster thinking of little else. Like Munster they were deprived of the opportunity of bouncing back the following week and then losing to Leinster in the RDS deepened the hole they were standing in. You looked at Ulster's team sheet for that game - as indeed you would have done against Saracens - and expected good things for them, but Kiss has a job on his hands mixing up an attacking pattern which has become predictable once they get to the tram lines.

On Friday against Edinburgh he got good and bad news. The good news was the result, and the "special effort" as he described to secure it. The form of centre Stuart McCloskey in particular was outstanding, as well as man of the match Kyle McCall.

The bad stuff was on the injury front, and it was nightmarish. Iain Henderson, who only returned to the side last week, was carted off with a hamstring injury inside five minutes, and was followed by Darren Cave two minutes later. The centre went off with AC damage. The hat-trick came with not even half an hour gone when Peter Nelson was stretchered off with an ankle injury, and then Dan Tuohy's ankle injury pushed it out to four.

It will be later today at least by the time the picture clears on that crew, but Henderson, Cave and Nelson are all long-term issues while Tuohy will also struggle to make the Toulouse game. Ulster needed the win, but not at that price.

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