Wednesday 15 August 2018

French test requires Reds to recall lessons learned

Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A French colleague issued a health warning the other day: "It will be 28 degrees in Bordeaux, so be careful with your Celtic skin! And Racing have their biggest team out for their biggest game. Beware!"

When you are limbering up for your 13th European semi-final you have the right to claim you have seen and done it all and panic isn't a button you know where to find, never mind press. But when the last five of those have been defeats it means this is not a trip with only hand luggage. Munster have a weight to carry.

The most recent of those was in Lansdowne Road last season, against Saracens. Two memories stand out: first there was the mixture of calmness and aggression that Saracens brought to the task of keeping out when the Reds got off to a flyer. They had phase after phase in fertile territory only to draw a blank. And when Sarries lifted that siege without conceding a try, you couldn't see Munster producing something else that would work. It was a long afternoon.

And the other memory was of the post-match press conference when Rassie Erasmus explained that Saracens were simply further down the road than Munster, and that experience is invaluable in those situations. Mark McCall echoed those comments. So where are Munster now on that journey?

"For that group it was as far as they'd got in a few seasons, and people forget how much pressure we were under that day," McCall says. "I remember for the first quarter when they were coming at us, it was our experience that shored it up for us. The previous year in the same situation (against Wasps) we coped, but we wouldn't have been as good - so that really stood to us.

This weekend is the first in six seasons that McCall has been idle at this time of year. With themselves and Toulon out of the way, it removes the two biggest players from the competition since Leinster's last win, in 2012. Racing are formidable but they are not in the same league. At least not yet.

"A year on, I think Munster are ready to do the same thing as we did last season," he says. "It (experience) helped them away against Castres, and while they lost in the last few minutes against Racing there was something about that - the way they stayed in the game and were able to win big moments. Then against Toulon they were under big pressure but knew how to stay in the game until their opportunity came. They understood what they needed to do to get through. And the evidence of that is there."

Their challenge this afternoon is to find a balance between establishing themselves physically and becoming over-involved with what is a gargantuan pack of forwards. It was painful for Donnacha Ryan to have to leave Munster, but it must have eased somewhat by fetching up - when he eventually got fit - in a front five like this one. But given that it's their third time facing Racing this season, Munster are pretty clear on what works and what doesn't.

So in those circumstances, leaving out someone of Simon Zebo's experience is a huge call. Zebo has struggled since pulling a hamstring a month ago, and the spin down to South Africa didn't go as planned. But the experience provided by a back three of himself, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls looks a bit deeper than one with Alex Wootton starting ahead of Zebo.

Like another man, Dan Carter, soon to move on, Zebo is on the bench today. Carter says that his medal haul is what makes it all worthwhile.

"I want the younger guys in this team to experience that, and that's why I'm trying to push this team and put the team first," Carter says. "I'm 36 and I may not be playing the best rugby of my career, but I still feel like I have got a lot to add, and the individual is nothing without the team. Even though I may not be playing my best rugby, I want this team to be successful."

Munster's lessons-learned file is brimming at this point. They need to pass the French exam.

Racing 92 v Munster

BT Sport, 3.15

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