Monday 24 September 2018

Munster will need vintage display to secure final spot

Big travelling support expect Reds to end losing semi-final run but Racing 92 are deserved favourites

Andrew Conway will be hoping to make a big impact for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Conway will be hoping to make a big impact for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Where better than the world capital of wine to produce a vintage performance?

The long winter has not been kind to the Bordeaux production lines and the descending Red Army will test their stocks over the next 24 hours, but if they are to have something to toast, their players will need to deliver a performance for the ages.

Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile

They are in the right place. The Stade Chaban-Delmas has a special place in Munster folklore as the site of the famous 2000 semi-final victory over Toulouse that got their show on the road. Something similar would do nicely tomorrow.

Standing in Munster's way is a familiar, formidable foe.

There has been a confident air emanating from the south-west, perhaps derived from the three wins in four meetings with Racing 92 in the past two seasons.

The decision to host the game outside Paris amid wild-cat rail-strikes will diminish the 'home country' effect and some are even predicting that Munster's support could outnumber that of the hosts.

On their day and, crucially, with Conor Murray fit and firing, Johann van Graan's team can live in any company. Yet, they have found the semi-final stage to be their glass ceiling.

This is their fifth visit to the last four in the 10 seasons since they last won the Heineken Cup and they have yet to progress. The core of this team have been there for three of those games and have also come up well short in two Guinness PRO12 finals.

Although they have changed coaches frequently during the decade since their last success, the main players have been constant since Rob Penney's time in charge when they last reached back-to-back semi-finals, losing both in France.

For Murray, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne and the surprisingly benched Simon Zebo (pictured left) this is familiar territory.

Perhaps the general optimism surrounding Munster's prospects is founded in a belief that Racing are not on a par with the Toulon, Clermont and Saracens sides who accounted for the Reds at this stage in 2013, '14 and '17 but underestimating the Parisians would be a mistake.

They may be an expensively assembled collection of world stars with little connection to the blue and white striped jersey, but they are a strong side and justify their favourites' tag.

Coached by two experienced figures in Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, they won the French title in 2016 and ran Sarries close in that year's European final.

Last year was a write-off marred by controversy around drugs, both performance-enhancing and recreational, but they have gotten their house in order this year and while Munster topped the pool ahead of them they were somewhat fortunate to do so. Any team that can go to Clermont and win a quarter-final deserves respect.

Exonerated by French anti-doping authorities, they have put their annus horribilis behind them. The addition of Donnacha Ryan adds grit to go with Leone Nakarawa's glitz, their capacity to spring Dan Carter from a strong bench offers change-up that no other side remaining in the competition can muster.

Stereotypes

The men from the capital buck the French stereotypes. Van Graan believes their defensive lineout work is second only to the All Blacks, while the now New Zealand-based Ronan O'Gara's defence is difficult to break down.

In Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, they have game-breakers offering huge threat to counteract their defensive shortcomings and, perhaps most pertinently, their fitness is on a par with the top teams.

And perhaps that will be the crucial factor with temperatures in Bordeaux set to top 27 degrees come kick-off tomorrow.

Unusually, Munster have been able to acclimatise by spending two weeks in South Africa in the build-up.

Ten flights in a three-week period may take a toll, but the bonding experience beneath Table Mountain should counter-act the negatives. Arriving home to find Earls fit and available would have eased any jet-lag.

His availability has forced Van Graan's hand and, in picking Alex Wootton ahead of Zebo, the South African has made his biggest call since taking over from Rassie Erasmus in December.

The former Springboks assistant has barely put a foot wrong since arriving in Limerick, but leaving a proven finisher and big-game player on the bench is risky business. Zebo has been struggling with injury in recent weeks, but his record is hard to ignore.

It is a brave decision, but otherwise the coach has stuck with the men who weathered the Toulon storm at Thomond Park.

They will need to be better tomorrow, particularly in the opening period when the French side's carelessness let Munster off the hook. Racing will not be as charitable.

Accuracy and creativity are key to a ticket to the Bilbao final for the Irish province and Murray will set the tone in that regard.

His intelligence and calmness are so important to the rest of the team. It is easy to forget that, while Saracens were vastly superior last year, Murray wasn't playing and without him they are a shadow of themselves.

No player is as important to any of the other semi-finalists as Murray is to Munster.

His charge-down earned them the win over Racing in Thomond Park, his goal-kicking secured a bonus point in Paris and his cleverness kept them in the game against Toulon before Andrew Conway's wonder-try won the day.

They can't rely on opportunism in attack tomorrow. They will need to create scores from their own good play.

That doesn't necessarily mean fancy stuff; the Munster lineout maul is an effective attacking weapon and they won't be afraid to use it despite Ryan's intimate knowledge of their system.

The battle of wills between the Tipperary native and O'Mahony will be central to everything.

Munster's tight-five know what's coming and have been able to handle it before, while their big men came off the bench and added to the effort against Toulon. Gerbrandt Grobler's power game will undoubtedly be an addition in the final stages.

If they can get to that stage with a chance, few would doubt their ability to get over the line yet in both pool games it was Racing who finished stronger with Munster hanging on.

In the heat and given their rigorous travel schedule, you sense the Reds need to get ahead, manage the scoreboard and squeeze the Parisians.

The cup-rugby mentality has served them well during their long and storied history in this tournament and now is not the time to change course.

After failing to fire a shot in last year's semi-final, they must at least ask questions of the Racing mentality and test their mettle.

They would prefer to have Chris Farrell, Chris Cloete and Jaco Taute available, but if you handed Van Graan this 23 before the tournament began, he'd have taken it.

Still, the South African coach is fully aware of the threats Racing bring.

"They've got world-class players all across the board. I think the offloading game of some of the Racing forwards is very, very good," he said.

"Their lineout contesting is second to the All Blacks, I believe. They really put you under pressure.

"Then they have players who can deliver big moments: (Maxime) Machenaud at No 9, just look at him in the French team, his goal-kicking, his general distribution.

"He's a world-class player. I thought Patrick Lambie played pretty well in the quarter-final.

"When you can bring on players like Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko, you know that you've got depth in your squad.

"It's a massive challenge for Munster going to France on a Sunday afternoon and trying to beat them there. It's one that we're looking forward to."

The warm weather in South Africa will stand to them in the stifling heat at the Stade Chaban-Delmas where temperatures could rise to 28 degrees tomorrow afternoon.

Calmness in the heat of battle will be crucial, as will the ability to last the pace.

For the travelling fans there is expectation that Munster can end their 10-year wait for a final and there are plenty of reasons for them to believe, but if they were to get over the line tomorrow afternoon it would go down as one of the three-time champions' greatest results.

Intensity

To achieve it, their players must go up a level and deliver a performance of controlled intensity for 80 minutes, remaining disciplined and taking whatever chance comes their way to build a score.

Racing may not have the heritage, but they have the players and the coaches to win this tournament and they are rightly the bookies' favourites.

For Van Graan and Munster, reaching the semi-final is an achievement in itself but naturally they want more.

They have the character, but in the end they may come up just short in terms of quality.

Racing possess the greater threats and, if the game breaks up as the heat takes its toll, their game-breakers can cause huge damage with Carter pulling the strings. Once again, it's the old story of Munster against the odds and in recent years they've come up short.

For a host of leading lights, this represents their best chance at joining the team of the 2000s in reaching a final and, potentially, claiming a third European title.

If they pull this off, they'll deserve a glass of the good stuff.

Irish Independent

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