Friday 23 February 2018

George Hook: Penney's troops in danger of walking into an ambush

Paul O’Connell (centre) and Peter O’Mahony listen toMunster team-mate BJ Botha (left) at training DIARMUID GREEN/SPORTSFILE
Paul O’Connell (centre) and Peter O’Mahony listen toMunster team-mate BJ Botha (left) at training DIARMUID GREEN/SPORTSFILE
George Hook

George Hook

There is an air of misplaced optimism among Munster fans this week. A facile and unimpressive victory over a hapless, disorganised and understrength Perpignan at Thomond Park has given rise to a dangerous sense of expectation in France this weekend.

It is almost as if a repeat result against the same opposition is a foregone conclusion. To expect as much, however, is to do Perpignan an irresponsible disservice.

Their results in the Top 14 so far this season make for interesting reading. Of their seven home matches in the French domestic league, Perpignan have lost only two: to Clermont Auvergne courtesy of a late try by Julien Malzieu, and to Stade Francais by a single point in a 28-27 thriller.

Each of the five home wins came with a minimum of 20 points on the scoreboard and an average of over 23 points scored per game.

Perpignan have managed only one win on the road thus far, beating a Biarritz side rock bottom of the Top 14 table and virtually unrecognisable from their former days as Heineken Cup contenders.


A glance at the Top 14 results this season will tell you everything you need to know: Perpignan tend to turn it on at the Stade Aime Giral and care little for trips away.

Munster have arrived in France without some key players. The addition of Conor Murray to an already troubling injury list is a blow that Rob Penney could have done without.

Cathal Sheridan has only recently emerged from the shadow of Duncan Williams as the understudy to Murray and it is difficult to predict how the youngster will cope in a cauldron of pressure this afternoon.

This is a game tailor-made for the departed Peter Stringer. Sheridan's delivery to the backline and leadership behind the pack will go a long way towards determining Munster's fate. We don't yet know if he is up to the job.

In the continued absence of Simon Zebo and with Tommy O'Donnell only just back on the bench, Donnacha Ryan's return alongside Paul O'Connell in the second-row is a timely boost.

At almost 35 years of age, Donncha O'Callaghan's best efforts do not carry the same impact they once did. The concern over Ryan, though, has to be his lack of match fitness; he hasn't featured for Munster since early October.

Perpignan will bring another level to their overall play this weekend, but the notable improvement will come from their pack. With this in mind, the selection of Sean Dougall ahead of CJ Stander in the Munster back-row makes little sense. Dougall did a reasonable job with a free rein at Thomond Park last weekend but it will be an altogether different proposition this afternoon.

Stander's presence alongside Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan would have offered a lot more resilience to the inevitable physical onslaught that Perpignan will provide.

As it happens, the South African does not even make the bench and with Robin Copeland arriving from Cardiff Blues next summer, the writing must be on the wall for the talented back-row. His treatment at Munster this season has been difficult to fathom.

Sunday's bonus-point win has put Munster in a better position to progress from their pool, but they cannot afford to take their foot off the gas today. Perpignan are capable of scoring tries but they are equally likely to give them up. It is also worth bearing in mind that Perpignan have lost only once in 33 Heineken Cup games at home.

Territory and possession are key. Frustrate the hosts and Munster can win. But if they approach this game with an expectation rather than a real desire to win, they will come undone.

Leinster's destruction of Northampton in Franklin's Gardens will be better appraised after the full-time whistle tonight.

Do Northampton have it in their armour to strike back at the Aviva Stadium, or are Leinster hitting the type of form that could see them claim their fourth Heineken Cup title? Based on last weekend, it is difficult to argue against anyone suggesting the latter, but there is a recent precedent to suggest that the former is also possible.

Ulster managed to throw away a hard-fought win in Northampton last season with a calamitous defeat in Ravenhill the following week. That result ended the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Mark Anscombe's squad and it ultimately cost Ulster a home quarter-final.

Leinster cannot afford to rest on their laurels in Dublin tonight. The mark of a champion boxer is the ability to follow up a hammer punch with a knockout blow.

Leinster must pick up from where they left off, with similar aggression, adventure and high standards in execution. Northampton's soft underbelly and lack of anything close to on-field leadership was ruthlessly exposed last weekend.

To allow them any semblance of reprieve would be to afford them a respect that they do not deserve.

Connacht are facing the grim prospect of a Guy Noves backlash at the Sportsground. Toulouse arrive in Galway with their pride hurt and their chances of progressing to the quarter-finals dependent on victory.

Noves has made several changes to his starting 15, but such is the strength in depth in the squad that each new face is as recognisable as the one that went before it.

Connacht's hopes of a second successive upset will not have been helped by a flu outbreak this week and in spite of the miserable weather forecast, it is too much to expect a side unaccustomed to victory this season to put in two miracle performances in the space of six days.

Ulster have the beating of Treviso in Italy, and another four-try bonus win would put them firmly on course to make the knockout stages.

Like Leinster, Ulster appear to be building some decent form at exactly the right time and if Anscombe can get all his front-line players fit, Ulster will be a force for any team in this tournament. At 8/1 to win it outright, they are worth keeping an eye on.

Irish Independent

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