Sunday 25 February 2018

Five reasons why Munster can topple Heineken Cup champions Toulon

Conor Murray, Munster, is tackled by Jaba Bregvadze, Toulouse
Conor Murray, Munster, is tackled by Jaba Bregvadze, Toulouse
CJ Stander, Munster, is tackled by Gillian Galan, Toulouse
Toulouse had no answer to Munster’s maul which could prove a powerful weapon again in the semi-final sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Munster and Leinster, in starkly contrasting ways, demonstrated last weekend that, rather than imprisoning, routine can be wonderfully liberating.

A dedicated, ruthless command of the basic fundamentals of their sport propelled Munster to build the foundations of a runaway success against opponents who, instead of seeming to be exalted, were instead exposed as mere mortals, shifting uneasily on sand.

Leinster, in contrast, veered away from the technical proficiency that had transformed them into one of the finest club teams the game has ever witnessed in its short professional era.

Theirs was a dereliction of duty witnessed all around the field, either encased in the unforgivable stat of missed tackles or the equally porous theatre of another supposedly renowned strength: their breakdown.

The big stuff comes from the small stuff.

Or, as Paul O'Connell acutely observed with stunning simplicity: "You'd be surprised at how those things accumulate into something much bigger."

The more little things a team and a player does well, the more emboldened they become; the more little things a team and a player does badly, the more enervated their efforts.

Rather than being restrictive, routine opens the door to creativity and ambition; Munster's free-scoring romp was as much evidence of this as Leinster's recidivist tendency to compound inaccuracies by immediately following them with another error.

If Munster were laden with self-doubt heading into last weekend, there will now be renewed belief that they can, at the very least, match their sterling efforts in the Auvergne last season.

FIVE REASONS WHY MUNSTER CAN TOPPLE THE CHAMPIONS

MIGHTY MAUL

Having refused to offer even the slightest, eyelash-fluttering glimpse of a maul against Leinster, Munster unleashed their rumbling edifice in all its destructive glory against Toulouse.

After a nervy second quarter, when some passive defence allowed their opponents to earn an unjustified and unnecessary foothold in proceedings, a stern half-time rebuke from players and coaches alike prompted a stunning response.

Their maul was key to the two-try, post-interval salvo that, in those key championship moments, decisively shifted the momentum of the contest and crushed any lingering interest the French had in clutching on dearly to their white towels.

Like other positive aspects of Munster's performance, of course, Toulon have now been forewarned and they will surely seek to deploy more numbers to the defence than hapless Toulouse.

MINT MURRAY

The French visitors to Thomond Park departed with purring envy at much of what they witnessed; their superlatives were reserved for the performance of the hometown scrum-half.

The confidence of Murray has surpassed the expectations of even his most ardent admirers, which is quite remarkable given that his initial impact was as a surprise call-up for the 2011 World Cup.

Sure, he has had occasional meltdowns on the field, but all have served to mentally strengthen him and he caused absolute havoc for Toulouse at the weekend; his tussle with Sebastien Tillous-Borde will be fascinating to behold.

A word, too, for Murray's inestimable partner Ian Keatley, who emerged from the most significant match of his career with his reputation vastly enhanced with clinical place-kicking and admirable control.

He will fear nobody, not even Jonny Wilkinson, when he decamps to Marseille this month.

SCRUMPTIOUS SCRUMMAGING

Toulon will be Chiocci-block so Munster will need to be chock-a-block with scrummaging options when they fly to Marseille at the end of this month, hence the urgent need for Dave Cronin and Stephen Archer to regain full fitness in three weeks' time.

With all the usual condescending deference to reserves Alan Cotter and John Ryan, Rob Penney, who also deputises as the club's scrum coach, will be anxious to be fully loaded with back-ups to Dave Kilcoyne and BJ Botha against Toulon's formidable front-row.

It would be asking a lot of Ryan to fill in on both sides of the scrum for an extended period.

THREE-QUARTERS FULL ON

O'Connell alluded to the success of Simon Zebo and Keith Earls on Saturday; it was indicative that Earls barely touched the ball for the first half of the Leinster defeat, but by the third minute against Toulouse, he had crossed the whitewash.

There is still a lot of work to do in terms of unstructured and phased attack play, but the lessons emanating from the weekend are clear for all to see; Munster need to ensure that their lightning wings get a decent slew of possession.

Regardless of Saturday's success, there is a nagging suspicion that Munster are a better attacking proposition with JJ Hanrahan and Gerhard van den Heever on the field; the side must balance these concerns against the defensive prowess provided by James Downey and Felix Jones.

It is a delicate high-wire act that could prove to be the winning and losing of the semi-final.

BACK-ROW BALANCE

Munster now seem likely to have to plan without Peter O'Mahony for the semi-final; if there is any consolation for supporters as they digest this unpalatable news, it is the optimism engendered by the team's stunning response to losing their captain on Saturday.

Initially, the signs were not overtly positive; the side threatened to lose their way, at once a reflection of the enormous influence wielded by their captain but also a confirmation that they teeter on the brink of over-reliance on one of Ireland's most potent Six Nations performers.

And yet CJ Stander, marooned from first-team deliberations for much of the season, responded with vigour to the invitation issued to produce easily his most complete performance of the season.

Tommy O'Donnell, in racing to a breakdown area that Steffon Armitage so stealthily dominated against Leinster, also reacted to a below-par display against Leinster, while James Coughlan presented his usual, imperturbable, immoveable force.

For all that, as O'Connell said, Munster will need to be better. For Toulon are much better than Toulouse. Leinster will be self-critical after missing 27 tackles; Munster missed 18 themselves, a figure which would be fatal against Toulon.

Saturday's quarter-final was a benchmark; now Munster must aim for even higher levels of performance if they are to have any chance of going one better in the final edition of a competition they will want to depart with a flourish.

Irish Independent

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