Luck of draw holds key to Munster's European fate
Rob Penney's side can beat anyone on their day but are not the finished article, says Jim Glennon
The more things change, the more they stay the same . . . . Having qualified from their pool for a remarkable 15th time in 16 seasons, the only issue to be decided today is a familiar one for Munster. Thanks to two wins on the road and results elsewhere, we're deprived of one of those nailbiters and must content ourselves with the simple question of the venue for the quarter-final.
There are many quirks and idiosyncrasies that make the Heineken Cup a great competition but one thing that is set in stone is the importance of a home quarter-final. Some have questioned whether that fact still holds true, from an Irish perspective, following Leinster's three straight away wins, Munster winning in Stade Aime Giral and Kingsholm, Connacht's win in Toulouse, and Ulster's win in Montpellier. The fact remains that an away win in the pool stages is a lesser achievement than in the knockout phase, when the pressure is really on.
The prospect of a poor Edinburgh team arriving in Thomond Park is by no means the most intimidating challenge Munster have ever faced in Europe. Perhaps the biggest hurdles today might be complacency and the atmosphere-killer that is the 12.45 kick-off. Presumably having surprisingly lost to Alan Solomons' team in the opening round, it should not be hard to guard against complacency, although there has to be a question over the bonus point. In that regard, and whatever about the early start, the Sunday fixture is an advantage in informing Rob Penney's team of what's required.
It's been a strange 18 months for Munster under Penney. A disappointing and inconsistent Pro12 campaign last season was redeemed by an unexpected Heineken Cup run. That wonderful quarter-final win in The Stoop against Harlequins and a heartbreaking near-miss against Clermont in Montpellier seemed to rekindle the furnace. The question is: what is the extent of their capability? There's no doubt that, on their day, they're capable of beating anyone in Europe. Whether they can put three performances of the requisite quality and intensity together is, however, a doubt.
In terms of results, there has been a consistency this season but the same cannot be said in terms of performance, and therein lies the justification for those lingering doubts. The poor quality of the performance in the Murrayfield slip-up, one week after beating Leinster in the Pro12, cannot be repeated.
While real tournament-winning quality, of the type required to survive sudden-death situations in the coliseums of Toulon or Clermont, has yet to manifest itself, one thing is guaranteed -- they will not go down without a fight.
Over the past couple of seasons we've seen the emergence of a new generation, particularly up front; David Kilcoyne, Tommy O'Donnell, more recently Dave Foley, and, most importantly, Peter O'Mahony have shown that they've been quarried from the same stone as some of their illustrious predecessors. While neither Perpignan nor Gloucester are currently at the peak of their powers, away wins over both was a noteworthy achievement and a strong indication that the current Munster group possesses all the necessary fundamentals to maintain their own unique tradition.
O'Mahony in particular has shown this season that, if he continues in the same vein, he has the makings of a real stalwart for both province and country. His desire, passion and natural talent, combined with an excellent skill set and work rate make him a leader and an opponent to be feared.
The emergence of Castleisland's JJ Hanrahan as a real contender for the No 10 shirt has fuelled the fire. We heard last week that Ian Keatley has been struggling with an ongoing injury, yet in Kingsholm he gave an understated and highly-assured performance which was the perfect response to a disappointing outing the previous week in Ravenhill. The vision he showed in setting up Keith Earls' first-half try was something of which the previous incumbent himself would have been proud.
For rugby reasons, Munster need to win today -- that much is self-evident. The commercial imperative cannot be ignored either though and a win with style is possibly even more important in the context of the ongoing battle to retain our top players in Ireland. Just how far they ultimately progress in the competition is a moot point -- the luck of the draw will be crucial. A consistent feature of their history in the competition has been their capacity to do something magical when least expected.