Thomond clash to set tone for decisive Euro ties
THEY have a six-point lead at the top of the Magners League and are in control of their destiny in the Heineken Cup but Munster head into tonight's clash with Ulster at Thomond Park under considerable scrutiny after a turbulent couple of weeks.
Defeat away to the Ospreys, in a game that Munster would have won pulling up if they could have locked the scrum, was followed by Paul O'Connell's justifiable appeal against his preposterous four-week ban being summarily dismissed and there was also the unwelcome deluge of attention on off-field matters following the squad's Christmas party in Kilkenny.
Travelling to the Sportsground is a mental test at the best of times, but with all that was going on around Tony McGahan's squad heading up to the wind, rain and scalp-hungry dervishes of Connacht last Monday, the challenge was particularly exacting.
Thus, Munster's narrow victory was a commendable achievement, particularly given the morale-sapping injury to Alan Quinlan and the fact that defeat looked inevitable heading into the final quarter, and it sets them up for an improved performance against a brittle Ulster outfit.
Ronan O'Gara copped some flak for his performance in Galway but, in typical fashion, the out-half proved critical to the victory with his excellent conversion of Tom Gleeson's try and subsequent drop goal creating the gap that denied Connacht the option of a match-winning penalty late on.
That deserves recognition and the bottom line is that O'Gara captained his side to a victory that, behind a beaten scrum, could easily have been a defeat. The out-half is having a fine season and, as ever, is the key figure in Munster's quest for silverware -- it is the problems at scrum time that are the pressing concern.
Memories are short in this game and, as McGahan pointed out after Monday's victory, the Munster scrum had been a source of encouragement this season -- until it was dismantled in the Liberty Stadium and the Sportsground.
The tight-head prop is the fulcrum of any scrum operation and, over the course of those two matches, Tony Buckley, John Hayes and Peter Borlase have struggled badly.
Both the Ospreys and Connacht (Jamie Hagan made another powerful statement on Monday) boast good scrums but seeing Buckley and Hayes on the back foot is a worry for Munster and for Ireland, given their place in the national pecking order.
Borlase arrived from New Zealand with decent pedigree but did not take his chance against Connacht and, as with Leinster's unconvincing Kiwi recruit Clint Newland, the value of overseas props is completely undermined if they fail to fulfil their primary duties in the tight.
The Ulster scrum was one of the few plus points in their comprehensive defeat to Leinster, with Paddy McAllister hugely impressive against the power of Mike Ross, while BJ Botha provided his customary power on the tight-head side.
Neither Botha nor McAllister is starting tonight but Ulster will attack the Munster set-piece and the home side's capacity to respond will send out a message to Toulon ahead of their season-defining Heineken Cup clash in two weeks' time.
If the Munster tight five can provide a platform -- and you suspect they will, in typical backs-to-the-wall fashion -- then they should be able to expose the frailties in Ulster's make-up. We said in the build-up to the Ravenhill clash that Ulster's healthy Heineken Cup position and decent league results did not mask the reality of unconvincing performances and that was exposed by a ruthless Leinster display that merited a four-try bonus point.
Once again, Ulster's South African spine cracked, with Ruan Pienaar, the highest profile Springbok to follow the exchange-rate path to Belfast, especially disappointing. But, even allowing for claustrophobic Leinster defence, it was the lack of verve in Brian McLaughlin's side and an addiction to running at bodies rather than space that was most underwhelming.
We have been advocating the cause of Willie Faloon all season and the self-defeating policy of not starting the Ballynahinch openside was borne out once again. Chris Henry is a fine player but not a natural No 7, and restoring him to the No 8 slot with Faloon on the openside flank against Biarritz will spark an immediate improvement.
Both Munster and Ulster are looking for confidence-boosting performances ahead of key Heineken Cup matches. And, for all the prognosticators of doom, both sides are more than capable of engineering their path to the quarter-finals.
Whether they have the capacity to kick on from there, particularly in Ulster's case, is another matter but, once those quarter-finals are secured, McGahan and McLaughlin have two months to hatch their plans for the challenge of knock-out rugby.
Victory is not the be-all and end-all tonight but could still be hugely significant with a view to the bigger challenges around the corner, while individual performances will be closely watched by the Ireland management team as the Six Nations looms.
A solid Munster scrum and some spark of invention in Ulster's attacking play would be a good starting point in what promises to be a seismic introduction to 2011.