Wednesday 21 February 2018

Take it as Red: How Munster can finish emotional season on a high in Aviva cauldron

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus during squad training
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus during squad training
Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber during squad training. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For Munster, this is the culmination of an at-times epic and always emotional season.

They have grown as a team, bonded closer by the loss and the successes that have taken to heights they'd forgotten they could reach, and now they stand on the cusp of a trophy to enshrine it in the history books.

No one will forget what happened during the 2016/'17 campaign, but silverware has a way of immortalising seasons.

Two cups are on offer at the start-line and at the Aviva Stadium last month one avenue was brought to a shuddering halt. Tonight, they return to the capital in search of redemption.

Standing in their way is a Scarlets side who will arrive into Dublin 4 with no fear.

Having already won in Limerick and Galway this season, Wayne Pivac's swashbuckling team ransacked the RDS last Friday night; casting Leinster's season of progress in an altogether less-flattering light.

They did it with style in the first half and matched it with grit in the second. No team had won a Guinness PRO12 semi-final away from home before and the Scarlets did it while playing with 14 men for 40-plus minutes.

So, Munster will not take them lightly this evening.

They will trust in a game-plan that has allowed them to physically dominate teams, using Conor Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal's kicking game to good effect and attacking when the time is right.

Defence coach Jacques Nienaber (right) has been the unsung hero of the campaign and no doubt he's been poring over the tape of the RDS encounter last weekend.

The Welsh region look a little light up front, but if they can hold water they have a back-line that can cut open even the best sides. It shouldn't be forgotten that they drew with Saracens in Europe earlier this season.

In Jonathan Davies, they have a Test Lion who has found form at the most convenient time. He was physically dominant in defence last week, but also contributed to the attack.

With Scott Williams, he forms an imposing partnership in midfield and if they can get good, quick ball, then the high-quality back three of New Zealander Johnny McNicholl and Welsh pair Steff Evans and Liam Williams can do damage.

Munster have quality backs of their own, but it is in the pack where this one will be won.

A stable set-piece is a must, with Donnacha Ryan driving things forward on his final appearance in a Munster shirt. If Munster can get CJ Stander, Tommy O'Donnell and Peter O'Mahony motoring around the corner, then they'll be on their way.

Murray can control things from the base of the ruck, with Bleyendaal surely determined to fix the performance he put in when he last played at this venue.

Collectively, Erasmus says, they've all been putting the lessons of the Saracens defeat into action.

"It's all about pressure," he said. "I know pressure and understand there are big moments in a game. It's a bit of a cliché, but big moments turn play-off rugby.

Sometimes you get a lot of belief or lose a lot of belief. I thought it was a big moment when we couldn't score in the 22, but then they kicked the ball and we actually scored from that one to relieve the pressure on ourselves.

"Against Saracens, we had 10 minutes just before half-time when we were on their try-line and could have scored to turn the pressure around. To be honest, I don't think it's a technical and tactical thing we learned, it's more a mind thing.

"We applied it on Saturday (against Ospreys) and we'll definitely need it this Saturday."

As he approaches the end of his first season in charge, Erasmus is realistic about what winning would do for his team.

"I'd be lying if I said to you that even if we lose, it has been a great season," he conceded. "It probably was an OK season. But we really want to win, as much as they want to win. It's two teams who really match up well.

"For us, it's a definite benefit playing in Ireland. We really want to win. It would be a wonderful season if we won it. "

Although they are playing in navy, Munster red is set to dominate the Aviva come kick-off. It's effectively a home final for the province who are desperate to end the campaign with a trophy, but they have a real job on their hands first before that dream can become reality.

Irish Independent

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