Sunday 22 April 2018

Penney's pep talks can lift Munster to required level

David Kelly

David Kelly

From uncertainty against Racing to a racing certainty; Munster's Heineken Cup campaign, aborted in panicked circumstances last weekend, will surely take flight tomorrow.

Presumably, they have spent a week absorbing critical lessons. And, instead of spending the past week kicking themselves, Munster have been kicking a lot of leather.

Having addressed their appallingly muddled approach to last week's game in Paris, Munster should be more than capable of dismissing an Edinburgh side who barely resemble the outfit that stormed to the semi-finals of this competition only six months ago.

Notwithstanding the awkward, sleep-inducing 12.45 kick-off and the absence of Ronan O'Gara, Penney's insistent post-mortems this week should result in home fans feeling a little better about themselves after a hat-trick of away defeats.


Still, if Munster don't easily vault the handicap as expected, it is more than reasonable to question whether a side who have been persuaded to change their mind-sets also retain the ability to think on their feet in a crisis.

Last Saturday's loss to Racing Metro -- notwithstanding the absence of Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara from the chaotic endgame -- suggested that they could not, and the frustration still clearly rankles with their Kiwi coach, despite his increasing intimacy with this team's personality.

"Yes," he answers. "I don't mean to be flippant about it but closing out that game is something you would have expected the group to do, when you look back, given the experienced people that were on the field at the end.

"You could probably make allowances that they didn't have the knowledge and expertise that was required.

"We have had a lot of discussions this week around if we were in that position again, what our options might be, so hopefully it won't happen again if we are uncomfortable."

Tomorrow afternoon will surely not provide them with such an ordeal; that can wait until the double headers against Northampton in rounds three and four in December.

Penney has beefed up the pack, with Donncha O'Callaghan recuperating from hamstring trouble to partner O'Connell, who was pleased to emerge unscathed from a brutishly physical encounter last week.

Despite all within the Munster camp playing down concerns about Damien Varley's form -- including the player himself -- Penney has decided to opt for Mike Sherry at hooker instead.

Ian Keatley's inclusion has been well flagged and will be keenly observed beyond the parochial borders too; steering the ship competently as well as acting as playmaker can offer encouragement to those who view him as an immediate, rather than long-term, successor to O'Gara.

Denis Hurley slots into the full-back role but the presence of Felix Jones and the exciting JJ Hanrahan on the bench, dare we say it, invites the prospect of a bonus-point chase.

Their task has been made easier by the absence of the mercurial out-half Greig Laidlaw from the opposition ranks; he is replaced by Gregor Hunter, but try-machine Tim Visser, a hat-trick scorer in September's league tie in Scotland, is fit to start.

Michael Bradley's men will almost certainly bow out should they slide to defeat once more; the hapless 45-0 home humiliation to pool favourites Saracens invites little optimism.

"They did some really good things against Saracens," says Penney, clearly deriving benefit from exhaustive analysis. "You would be remiss to ignore that -- there were some really good things.

"It was very un-Edinburgh like but they got beaten up a few times at breakdown situations. Undoubtedly they will be doing some work in that area when they come to Thomond Park.

"Hopefully they'll feel they will be coming in under the radar. But they won't. We are doing as much diligent work on this game as we would for any one of the others. There are two sides hurting so there could be fireworks.

"You can use pressure in many ways. The boys feel as if they've let the team down, they've let the community down, they've let the jersey down.

"They just feel really dark about the situation they're in. It's not through lack of effort. Sometimes it just doesn't happen for you. We've got to get some performances on track that give us some results.

"All we can do week to week is try to build and grow and get better. Hopefully then the performances can produce positive outcomes.

"We don't control everything in the game. There's another 15 guys in the opposition trying to do exactly the same thing to stop us. So if they happen to be better on the day, it makes it difficult."

Aside from Laidlaw's absence, Bradley makes four other changes, with Greig Tonks and Ben Atiga recovering from injuries to make their Heineken Cup debuts, while the formidable Fiji captain Netani Talei starts at No 8.

"There's no doubt that this is a massive game for us, but it's also a big chance for us to get our European Cup campaign moving and challenge the teams in this group," said Bradley.

"Thomond Park is a fortress, steeped in Heineken Cup history. The fans and the players will be fired up for this, so we'll need to front up to the physical aspects of the game from the outset.

"If we match them physically, and are patient and accurate in possession, then we have a chance to impose our game plan and not be dictated to by the Munster players and a Thomond Park crowd that will be desperate for a home win."

Munster must strenuously beg to differ. Their season depends upon it.

Verdict: Munster

Munster -- D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; D Ryan, S Dougall, P O'Mahony. Reps: D Varley, M Horan, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, F Jones.

Edinburgh -- G Tonks; L Jones, N De Luca, B Atiga, T Visser; G Hunter, R Rees; J Yapp, R Ford, G Cross; G Gilchrist, S Cox (capt); D Denton, S McInally, N Talei. Reps: A Titterrell, R Hislop, WP Nel, R McAlpine, D Basilaia, C Leck, M Scott, T Brown.

REF -- W Barnes (RFU).

Munster v Edinburgh

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 12.45

Irish Independent

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