Penney's troops can push for Christmas bonus
THERE was no beating about the bush in Limerick this week – Munster know where they stand.
Part of the province's great European tradition comes from their perpetual habit of getting into scrapes at the pool stage, and more often than not they have managed to escape the problems of their own making.
If they are to do that this season, then they must beat Perpignan at Thomond Park tomorrow. Collecting a bonus point and denying the Catalans anything to take home with them would help too ahead of their six-day turnaround for the return trip.
The squad overnighted in Limerick this week as Rob Penney looked to increase the bond between his players ahead of these difficult back-to-back meetings with the Top 14 side.
Their task is made slightly easier by Perpignan's fixture list and their home defeat to Clermont last weekend. Marc Delpoux had to name all of his big guns for that clash, and not only did the result not work out, he was left counting the casualties afterwards.
In particular, the loss of giant South African wing Wandile Mjekevu is a blessing for the hosts after his rampaging displays in Rounds 1 and 2.
David Marty will be missed in the centre, while the absences of Georgian tighthead Giorgi Jgenti, France lock Romain Taofifénua and England No 8 Luke Narraway will weaken the pack. Count in the suspended Lifeimi Mafi and prop Sona Taumalolo and you get the picture.
Munster may be coping without Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo among others, but the return of Conor Murray and captain Peter O'Mahony will help matters, while the availability of Keith Earls – dubbed an "excitement machine" by his coach earlier this week – is a boost.
Perhaps Rob Penney had the return trip to Perpignan in mind when he named BJ Botha and CJ Stander on his bench, and the decision to go with Stephen Archer is a fillip to the young tighthead, who struggled in an Irish jersey last month.
But as the New Zealander himself admitted, there is no point in boarding that flight if they don't do the job tomorrow.
The kick-off time is a problem, with the Sunday lunchtime effect unlikely to facilitate the usually hostile Thomond Park atmosphere. While O'Mahony said that it shouldn't affect the players, having a boisterous and intimidating crowd under lights for a Saturday evening kick-off would have suited his side's purposes far more.
While they are focusing on one week at a time, next Saturday's trip to France looms large and everything that happens at Thomond is just a means of providing context to what is already shaping up as the group decider.
The table shows how close matters are in Pool 6, and there is a real prospect that all four sides could be on two wins apiece after Round 4. Perpignan have collected bonus points in both of their outings and, having missed out against a weakened Gloucester team last time out, Munster have some catching up to do on that count.
The Reds had an eye on this one last weekend when assistant coach Simon Mannix skipped their win over the Dragons to watch Perpignan in action.
"They are very sure of themselves, they are a very abrasive team with a lot of individual talent and you know they will lay it all on the line for the shirt," came the report from the former Racing Metro coach.
What he will have seen is a team with a monstrous pack and an out-half in Camille Lopez who will vary his game. He will also have observed a backline whose first instinct is to attack, but whose willingness to try things could offer the hosts some opportunities.
Certainly, Clermont took full advantage of the unusual generosity on offer at the Aime Giral last Friday and, while Perpignan have assembled a strong squad and are bouncing back after a couple of tough years, they are still far from the finished article.
While Munster have not lost since their Edinburgh disaster, their opponents are winless in their last three matches, even if two of those defeats came against last year's European finalists in Clermont and Toulon.
They will be dangerous if Munster let them be. A key theme this week has been about Munster's need to be physical and match the sizeable visiting forwards head on.
Another issue will be the platform Murray and Ian Keatley are given. Against Wales international Luke Charteris and his second-row partner Guillaume Vilaceca, the Munster jumpers will be giving away a couple of inches apiece in the line-out and, with Mike Sherry's cruciate injury putting additional pressure on Damien Varley, the Reds need to have their timing spot on.
"It's tougher to compete against them and just their sheer height makes it difficult to attack off them, line-out-wise as well," O'Mahony admitted this week.
"You look at someone like Dev (Toner) for us in Ireland, and he's a great line-out option. It's tough to win ball off him even when you know it's coming to him and to jump against him is a nightmare.
"But we haven't a couple of bad lineout jumpers as well. Paulie (O'Connell) is handy enough and Donners (O'Callaghan) and a few of the lads are well able as well. So it certainly is an advantage but there's nothing we can do about that, we've just got to go after it as hard as we can."
The captain described the remaining four matches as cup rugby, and nothing suits Munster's players more.
They put their own backs to the wall by losing their opening match at Murrayfield, but doing it the hard way has always been the norm for the two-time champions.
MUNSTER – F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: D Casey, J Cronin, BJ Botha, B Holland, CJ Stander, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley.
PERPIGNAN – J Hook (capt); J Michel, T Benvenutti, W Votu, S Guitoune; C Lopez, T Ecochard; S Taofifenua, R Terrain, P Ion; L Charteris, G Vilaceca; JP Perez, A Strokosch, J Puril. Reps: M Delonga, K Pulu, JB Custoaja, S Vahaamahina, D Duvenage, T Allan, R Haughton, D Leo.
Munster v Perpignan,
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