Friday 23 February 2018

Will the real Reds please stand up – and stop damp end to Penney reign?

Rob Penney speaks with Simon Zebo during training
Rob Penney speaks with Simon Zebo during training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT's the unpredictability that must haunt Rob Penney on mornings like this as he wakes up wondering which Munster team will turn up at Scotstoun and whether this semi-final will be his last game as coach.

For the second time in a month, the province find themselves in an away semi-final against an in-form team.

Glasgow Warriors are not Toulon, but nor have Munster been themselves since they exited the Heineken Cup in frustrating circumstances in Marseille.

The coach has picked the same starting XV for the trip to Scotland, while changing things up slightly on the bench, where there is no place for Tommy O'Donnell – Paddy Butler is preferred – and Quentin MacDonald and Andrew Conway come in for the injured Duncan Casey and Denis Hurley.

If the players can match the commitment they showed in France and cut out the mistakes, then they have a real chance of setting up an all-Irish final.

However, the two meetings with tonight's hosts have almost come to define Munster's season. In October, they won a bad tempered, gritty affair and went on to lose just once in four months.

Last month, a week after the high of Toulouse, they rolled over at Thomond Park in an error-strewn display that gave the Warriors the initiative in the race for a home semi-final.

That outing appeared to take the gale-force wind generated by the Toulouse win out of Munster's sails and they have limped towards the finish line since.

Certainly, on paper, they have what it takes to beat this Glasgow side, but the form says otherwise.

Still, there was some surprise when Gregor Townsend dropped Lion Stuart Hogg – who has been linked with a move to Munster – from his match-day 23 yesterday, and Munster will certainly prefer to see Peter Murchie at full-back.

Chris Cusiter is preferred to livewire scrum-half cum winger Niko Matawalu, while Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour come back on to the wings.

The Warriors are on an eight-game winning streak. Physically powerful, with pace out wide, they are a tough proposition and deserved their second-place finish.

Munster, meanwhile, still look muddled at times – particularly in the backs – and their outrageous showreel of errors in last week's defeat to Ulster can't have been easily erased this week.

It has been a strange couple of weeks and the Penney era is in danger of petering out.

"I don't know if it's easy because it's been going on all year and it hasn't been good enough, we haven't been consistent enough," Conor Murray admitted.

"But we still are a confident team, we know we're a good team and we can look back on plenty of good performances this year.

"It's just you'd hope the better Munster team shows up this week rather than the one that showed up against Ulster or Glasgow a couple of weeks ago after Toulouse that didn't show any heart. You know, it's actually quite embarrassing to show up in two home games in a row at Thomond and play like that."

Murray is desperate to land some silverware.

"It's not just for Rob and Simon (Mannix) – it would be great to send them off on a high – but for the work that's gone in over the last two years with this squad, bringing a lot of the younger players through. In a lot of big games, we've come off second best," he continued.

"Not that we deserve anything, but it would be great for this squad going forward.

"Right now I truly believe we're a good enough team to win it, but it just depends on what team shows up, that seems to be the issue at the moment. I have no doubt that when we do show up we're quite a handful and we can beat anyone we come up against in the Pro 12."

Perhaps the template for success can come from Munster's sole try against Glasgow last month.

James Downey punched a hole up the middle, off-loaded to Simon Zebo and, with the Warriors scrambling, Munster went wide quickly and CJ Stander was on hand to dot down, with others queuing up. Off to France at the end of the season after being underused throughout his second stint at Munster, Downey's direct approach is needed to suck in defenders.

The forwards have the scrum, line-out and maul to do damage, but behind the scrum, the wide-wide approach has not had the desired effect and against a team as talented as Glasgow, it is unlikely to trouble them.

Away from home, against quality opposition, Munster's season is on the line. For Penney, Downey and Casey Laulala, this is the last chance saloon, while for others, who have yet to win anything in red, there is an opportunity to claim silverware.

It just depends on which Munster turn up and whether it is too late to reach for the switch and turn things on.

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors

GLASGOW WARRIORS – P Murchie; S Maitland, M Bennett, A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, C Cusiter; R Grant, D Hall, J Welsh; J Gray, A Kellock (capt); R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss. Reps: P MacArthur, G Reid, G Cross, T Swinson, L Nakarawa, N Matawalu, R Jackson, S Lamont.

MUNSTER – F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; D Foley, P O'Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: Q MacDonald, J Cronin, J Ryan, D O'Callaghan, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, A Conway.

Ref – M Mitrea (Italy)


Irish Independent

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