Saturday 18 November 2017

Reds racing certainties to see off French as Keatley gets unexpected chance to prove worth

Conor George

Conor George

MUNSTER'S prospects of emerging from their Heineken Cup pool have been dealt an enormous blow this week with Ronan O'Gara's suspension.

Throughout Munster's fabled history, O'Gara has been the master puppeteer for their most outrageous achievements. He is banished to the stands this weekend, no doubt to sit alongside Munster's other great stalwart, Paul O'Connell.

Out of adversity, though, opportunity often presents itself. Tomorrow we get a glimpse into Munster's future, of how things will be a year or so from now, when the last members of that mighty group who ruthlessly blew across the face of European rugby with the force of a hurricane, have retired.

It's a sobering reality, especially for the younger generation, who must replace those heroes they grew up worshipping.

Time waits for no man, however, and Ian Keatley gets the chance he has been craving ever since he was convinced his future lay with the red of Munster rather than the dark green of Connacht.

Keatley moved south to be a part of these storied days, the do-or-die matches that are sprinkled liberally through Munster's history. Up until now, though, he has had to watch from afar.

He was on the bench last season when Munster went through some 40-plus phases of possession before O'Gara kicked the winning drop-goal against Northampton. And he could only watch in admiration when O'Gara repeated the feat a week later against Castres.

This time around, he is afforded the opportunity to grasp the spotlight. He burned his fingers in Paris in October when his first opportunity – off the bench – presented itself. However, this is an unexpected chance to redeem himself and recapture some of the ground he lost that day.

Most of Munster's plays under Rob Penney and Simon Mannix are run from the No 10 channel. Some plays are creeping in to utilise Conor Murray's particular skillset, but the emphasis is still on the out-half to get the best from those outside him.

It is a fallacy to suggest that Munster move more fluidly under Keatley's baton. For sure, he runs with ball in hand more often, but his movements are deceptive as, he is generally moving laterally and making little ground.

He needs to straighten his movement and use his foot-speed and break to good effect tomorrow.

If he can incorporate all the positive facets of his game with more control and vision, the Munster backline has the ability to truly sing.

In this regard, it is surprising that Penney has again opted for a Keith Earls/James Downey midfield axis. Earls has been underwhelming in his preferred position of No 13 and Penney is an admitted fan of Casey Laulala.

It hasn't helped, of course, that Laulala has also been below par, but this is just the sort of game that could have been used to help infuse Laulala with confidence. Including him in the centre would have afforded Penney the freedom to move Earls to the wing and deploy Simon Zebo at full- back.

But Penney has opted for the minimum of change. Keatley instead of O'Gara is the only alteration from the side that defeated Edinburgh.

This is, obviously, a huge game for Munster. If they are to be victorious, though, they will need to improve hugely on the fare on show of late.

Racing Metro are not at full strength. They have made 13 changes to their starting XV from the team which lost narrowly to Saracens last weekend. This includes being without suspended France hooker Dimitri Szarzewski, as well as centre Fabrice Estebanez.

Playmaker Juan-Martin Hernandez, wing Juan Imhoff and centre Henry Chavancy are all being rested, as Racing have no chance of qualification.

History is also against the visitors – of the the 20 French clubs who have played on Munster soil in the Heineken Cup, none have won. It is impossible to see that trend being reversed this weekend.

As long as Munster can add some accuracy to their work out of touch and continue their excellence in the scrum, this is a game they should win comfortably.

Verdict: Munster

Munster – F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha; D O'Callaghan, D Ryan; P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, W du Preez, J Ryan, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, C Laulala.

Racing Metro – G Germain; J Jane, G Bousses, A Dumoulin, S Bobo; O Barkley, M Belie; J Brugnaut, B Noirot, B Sa; K Ghezal, F Metz; A Batut, B La Roux, J Cronje. Reps: T Bianchin, A Lo Cicero, JP Orlandi, J Qovu Nailiko, B Fall, S Dellape, S Descons, M Matadigo.

Ref – W Barnes (England)

Munster v Racing Metro, live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 12.45

Irish Independent

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