Monday 25 March 2019

Alan Quinlan: Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander must set tone and fire Munster in Champions Cup crunch

These may be uncertain times at Munster but few things focus the mind better than European rugby at Thomond Park

CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are vital to Munster
CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are vital to Munster
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

The heavy burden of history hangs around the necks of both sets of players and while expectations may not match those from their dizzying days at the top of the European game, the Munster-Leicester rivalry remains as testy as ever.

With Munster's 38-0 drubbing of the same opposition in Limerick 12 months ago still bubbling away in the background, Matt O'Connor desperate to make a point on his return to Ireland, and all of the off-field distractions for the Reds while new man Johann van Graan adjusts his driving seat, this potentially season-defining game has all the ingredients for a European classic.

Munster, perhaps understandably considering the injuries they've endured and the untimely departures of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, have failed to reach the same heights of last season but there is a genuine feeling that they are just one big performance from kick-starting this stuttering campaign.

With such uncertainty and so many injuries to juggle, it may appear the visit of Leicester is coming at a bad time for Munster; however, the hypnotic power of European rugby focuses the mind, unites the collective, and often brings the best out of players.

Munster must take inspiration from the many famous European nights over the past 20 years and look to write another chapter in the province's lore.

Van Graan hasn't had the time to change an awful lot so I'm not expecting to see much different from Munster.

As ever, there will be a strong focus on winning the battle up front - forward dominance is so often a deciding factor, particularly at this time of year.

Munster will need to be direct and confrontational, and having the bruising Jean Kleyn back in the second-row certainly helps with that approach - his absence through injury has been as keenly felt as anyone else's this season.

In last year's home game against Leicester - which was a year ago tomorrow - Munster's intensity was phenomenal. Their energy, their enthusiasm, their ability to win the collisions was unbelievable and they blew Leicester away.

Trying to replicate that, holding on to the ball and playing the game in the right areas will be key.

Just two weeks in the Munster hot seat, the spotlight has quickly fallen on Johann van Graan as the province tries to fend off suitors for Peter O’Mahony and now CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Just two weeks in the Munster hot seat, the spotlight has quickly fallen on Johann van Graan as the province tries to fend off suitors for Peter O’Mahony and now CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile

They don't need to reinvent the wheel, they just need to be aggressive, produce a solid set-piece and win the battle up front. It doesn't need to be a pretty or polished performance, this is all about getting a result.

While Van Graan is only two weeks into the role there are plenty of familiar faces around him who should help with continuity and the players should be match-sharp after back-to-back Guinness PRO14 wins or a successful international window with Ireland behind them.

Having Andy Farrell around the camp for the past couple of weeks will also have been a huge help, particularly as Munster's defence seems to have regressed from its stringent ways under Jacques Nienaber last season.

The Ireland defence coach will be repeating the message that Munster must be physically dominant and set the tone early on.

Not much gets the Thomond Park faithful going like an early bone-crunching hit, and if Munster smother you from the outset in Limerick, it's a very difficult hold to escape from.

Farrell knows these players well from his time with Munster and Ireland and he's a very inspiring guy with a great knowledge of English rugby, so I expect he has made a huge impact.

Two men who need to set the tone tonight are Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander. Off-field negotiations with Munster's star back-rowers has dominated recent discourse, but they need to make their presence felt on the field if Van Graan's side are to take this pool by the scruff of the neck.

The back-row unit has been representative of Munster's overall form for the past few months; while they've been efficient they haven't hit the heights of last season, although injuries and the lack of depth in the second-row have probably prevented them from being as effective as they can be.

They were so dominant and powerful in the collision areas last year and they need to lead the way on that front.

While Munster are once again juggling a huge amount of injuries, Van Graan has at least been able to pick a pretty balanced starting XV, although the lack of a recognised loosehead prop on the bench - Brian Scott is predominantly a tighthead - is a concern.

Fortunately, Dave Kilcoyne has been in tremendous form this season for province and country, and with Liam O'Connor and James Cronin out, his fitness is absolutely vital for Munster right now.

There is no reason why Munster can't win this game. They are missing a few key players but that has given the likes of Sam Arnold and Alex Wootton an opportunity to prove they are cut out for European rugby, and going by their performances in the PRO14, you'd have little reason to doubt them.

One man who will have marked this game from a long way out is Leicester coach Matt O'Connor.

He may not admit it but he will be coming across the Irish Sea with a point to prove following his frustrating sacking from Leinster in 2015.

Warren Gatland has previously outlined how playing against Irish teams put extra fire in his belly following his dismissal as Ireland head coach in 2001 and, similarly, I suspect O'Connor will want to highlight his credentials with an astute tactical performance knowing the Irish rugby public, including Leinster fans, will be watching.

There may be uncertainties around Munster but Leicester's wobbly form will equally be a concern for O'Connor.

They've lost their last two games in the Premiership, to Wasps and Worcester, have conceded 90 points in their last three matches, and currently sit sixth on the 12-team table.

They may not be as forward-orientated as they have been traditionally, going back to the days of Martin Johnson, Martin Corry and Neil Back, but they have a side littered with internationals and one that boasts a particularly dangerous backline that includes Ben Youngs, George Ford and Jonny May - although they are missing the likes of Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, while England prop Ellis Genge is a huge loss up front.

There has been no shortage of memorable encounters between these two sides; the infamous hand of Back in the 2002 final, Munster dethroning the two-time champions in Welford Road less than 12 months later, and four pool games (of which Leicester have won three) in the past two years.

As two traditional European heavyweights step into the ring for the ninth time tonight, past achievements count for little; it's all about the immediate future and landing some heavy blows in the first half of this intriguing 160-minute bout.

Bring on that first bell.

Irish Independent

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