Monday 23 October 2017

Consistency should drive Munster to day out in Cardiff

But Harlequins will be no pushover in next weekend's semi-final, says Brendan Fanning

T hings to be enthused about if you're a Munster fan: they go into Saturday's Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final with a raft of advantages over Harlequins.

Like the fact that Quins' only win in six meetings with Munster was in London back in the dark recesses of time -- 1997; that they go into this game with a day less to recover from today's away trip to Leeds where they have to win if they are to have a chance of Heineken Cup rugby next season (at least via the Premiership); and they are, what Alan Hansen might call, kids.

This should be a really good game of rugby. Most games involving Quins are. They only know one way to play and, as it happens, that way is their best chance of overcoming steep odds to deprive Munster of a place in the final. Things to be concerned about? Quins' outhalf Nick Evans is playing the best rugby of any 10 in the Premiership, and given the weight of expectation on New Zealand to win the World Cup in the autumn, you'd think Graham Henry might open negotiations on freeing him up for a few weeks, however unlikely that is.

Oh, and another thing to be concerned about: in 29 of their 32 competitive games this season, Harlequins have either won or been beaten by no more than a score. So they may not be great at closing out games but it's rare for them to get beaten out the gate, and with that combination of youth and stickability they should be in touch when the teams round the final bend.

Certainly that's the hope of Conor O'Shea, whose presence in the Harlequins camp adds an extra bit to the occasion. "We're a team that's making massive strides in terms of the way we play rugby," he says. "We know we're going into this as massive underdogs but we're determined to play our game and see where it takes us."

So far it has taken them to mid-table with impressive stats in some areas. Like their defence where they have conceded only 25 tries in 20 games. And they are leading the Premiership on line breaks. When you consider the age profile of the side it puts those figures into an even better light. Depending on what happens against Leeds today they should be at full strength on Saturday, in which case five of their starting pack against Munster will probably be 24 or under. Their centres are 21 and 23 respectively. If you were to factor out Nick Easter and Nick Evans this would be a gaggle of young fellas looking for some fun.

Sometimes that's the way they have played: penalties quickly tapped and lineouts quickly thrown and see where it all takes them. It will be interesting given the price on winning this afternoon to see if their emphasis shifts if it's neck and neck going to the last.

The things to be unenthused about if you're a Harlequins fan is that they are up against a team who have survived the intrusion of the IRFU's Player Management Programme to comfortably lead the Magners League. That requires consistency. The prospect of finishing the season with two trophies is very appealing now, especially given the quality of those left in the Amlin. You think a final for Munster in Cardiff City Stadium against either Stade Francais or Clermont Auvergne would feel like a second-class affair?

Munster will get after Quins as if their lives depend on it and given the tempo they put on the game in Brive in the quarter-final, facilitated by the return of Felix Jones, who is making a late run for World Cup inclusion, this will be an exhausting affair.

It could also be significant, with September in mind, for Peter Stringer and Donnacha Ryan. In the continued absence of Tomás O'Leary, whose back issues seem to have resurfaced no sooner than his eye seems right, Stringer has fallen behind Conor Murray whose physicality appeals to Tony McGahan.

Yes, we know Declan Kidney picked O'Leary and Luke Fitzgerald for Ireland in the Six Nations when they had no form, but is it credible that he can run with Stringer as a third scrumhalf in the World Cup squad when he is effectively third choice in Munster? Stringer is perched on 98 caps, with four Tests in August. Will he be given two run-ons and be left at home when the squad flies to New Zealand?

As for Donnacha Ryan, he is benefiting from the absence of Paul O'Connell and has featured in every game since the Heineken pool match against London Irish in January. He started yesterday in the second row against the Ospreys -- most of his action has been at six -- and filling in both positions increases his appeal to Kidney who already rates him. Surely he needs to do something more impressive however to get the ticket for NZ. In Stringer's case, he needs a minor miracle. We'll see if either or both feature in the bid to subdue the young Harlequins. It's hard to see Conor O'Shea's crew surviving this trip.

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