Sunday 18 February 2018

O'Connell return may not be enough for Reds to derail Metro in Paris

David Kelly

David Kelly

Taking a step into the unknown requires freighting as much familiarity as possible with you. Hence, Munster are armed with a brace of reassuring icons to aid them upon their dastardly trek to paris.

For all of the negative navel-gazing down south last season, Munster won six from six Heineken Cup pool games.

None of that remarkable, albeit ultimately deceitful, progress would have been conceivable were it not for the presence of their twin titans, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.

Injury, lack of playing time and form have mocked the pair at the start of this season, yet there was never a doubt that a rookie coaching duo would dare to gamble with their province's rich Heineken Cup tradition by leaving either player on the sideline.

O'Connell's fitness issues have been shrouded in familiar mystery these past few months, with even the player himself acknowledging that his injuries are possessed of their own peculiar traits.

He knows when he is right or not right. Hence, one must presume that his readiness to be pitched into the fare this afternoon was not a decision taken lightly. That will not lessen the urgency of his appointment in Paris, however.

purpose

Racing Metro possess an enormous pack. They move slowly but with great purpose, propagating one-out rugby that suits so many of us who enjoy combining Top 14 rugby with mid-afternoon weekend naps.

It is Munster's task to ensure that any early physical battles are engaged spicily enough to guarantee that there is a war left fighting for by the final quarter.

For once a team can move Racing about the field at a decent pace, benefits can accrue. A potentially stodgy pitch beneath the threatened thunderstorms arriving in Paris from the west may, however, literally and metaphorically, dampen the visitors' ardour.

O'Connell, in tandem with the back-row pairing of Peter O'Mahony and Donnacha Ryan, who need to demonstrate their willingness to step up and become leaders of men, must battle ceaselessly to prevent this happening.

Losing Wian du Preez will not help. Regardless of what Munster saw in their video analysis, Dave Kilcoyne was repeatedly pinged by the referee in Dublin last weekend and may be so again should his lighter pack fail to attain parity.

Only positive results from these efforts up front, and the consequent decision to start with O'Connell, will have any influence on whether the decision to persist with O'Gara at 10 retains any relevance.

Should Munster struggle early on, O'Gara's experience could be vital. Then, if Munster can stay on their feet until the final rounds of the contest, what a time to spring Ian Keatley from full-back to dance rings around tiring victims.

This will be a huge test of Munster's ability to persist with their new expansive style, with head coach Rob Penney insisting that his side can still play different types of rugby.

They may need to this afternoon, for their back-row and pack may struggle to advance any of the territorial claims necessary to enjoy fluency out wide.

This is where O'Gara's poise and class can frustrate Munster's opponents, who parade the fitful talents of Olly Barkley after only arriving in the country a week ago. The Englishman has joined a club whose grand ambitions remain crippled by ego, whose coaching turnover is on a scale befitting English club soccer.

Toss in player indifference, as evidenced in their grim submission to Montpellier at home last weekend, and the ingredients are all there for a red army ambush.

Today is a familiar French occasion where Munster must attempt to stay on their feet for as long as possible -- they cannot possibly win a battle of trench warfare.

O'Connell's return, aided by O'Gara's early nous, may ensure that they can be competitive enough to land a knock-out blow.

The evidence of recent weeks deems this highly unlikely, but O'Connell's return can make anything possible.

Verdict: Racing Metro

Racing Metro -- B Fall; J Jane, M Bergamasco, F Estebanez, J Saubade; O Barkley, M Machenaud; A Lo Cicero, D Szarzewski, L Ducalcon; K Ghezal, F Van der Merwe; A Battut, M Matadigo, J Cronje. Replacements: T Bianchin, E Ben Arous, SA Benjamin, F Metz, B Le Roux, C Gerondeau, S Descons, V Vakatawa.

Munster -- I Keatley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha; B Holland, P O'Connell; D Ryan, S Dougall, P O'Mahony.

Replacements: M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, P Butler, P Stringer, D Barnes, D Hurley.

Ref -- Greg Garner (RFU)

Racing Metro v Munster,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.35

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