Thursday 24 May 2018

Foley sticks with Keatley as Munster play for their pride

Ian Keatley will start for Munster at 10 but it remains to be seen if he holds the kicking tee for today’s game against Stade Francais (SPORTSFILE)
Ian Keatley will start for Munster at 10 but it remains to be seen if he holds the kicking tee for today’s game against Stade Francais (SPORTSFILE)
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

At the end of one of most difficult weeks in their modern history, there is no guarantee of a cathartic afternoon for Munster at Thomond Park.

They will be wearing black for the occasion, but it is as a result of an administrative error rather than some sort of reflection of their mood.

The malaise that swept through the squad last week extended to someone packing their home kit rather than the away one, so this week they will don their change strip as Stade Francais look pretty in pink.

While it sent the Irish province into a spiral of introspection and self-doubt, Stade's win last Saturday breathed fresh life into their Champions Cup campaign.

With retaining the Top 14 title out of the question for Gonzalo Quesada's troops, the Argentinian coach has locked and loaded for their visit to Limerick.

Into the team come France pair Rabah Slimani and Pascal Papé, while destructive centre Jonathan Danty is brought in from the bench.

The French champions enjoyed a marked superiority at scrum time last week and will be licking their lips at the arrival of untested tighthead Mario Sagario into the Munster team. The Uruguayan wasn't trusted to replace BJ Botha last week, but now he must hold up the Reds' set-piece in the wake of the South African's season-ending knee injury.

Despite their terrible recent run, all of the local disquiet and the fact that it's a dreaded lunchtime kick-off, Munster have managed to sell more than 18,000 tickets for this game.

Those who turn up will demand a response from a team who were worryingly abject in defeat last weekend.

Anthony Foley has gone for a six forwards-two backs split on the bench to counter Stade's power-game, while he has brought Billy Holland in for Robin Copeland, who didn't play all that well in Paris.

He wasn't the only one. Simon Zebo owes his coach a performance from full-back, while Ian Keatley will be under pressure yet again to deliver for his team having been backed once again.

Whether he holds the kicking tee remains to be seen, but the out-half's misses are having a chronic effect on his team and his own game.

The most straightforward thing for the home side to do today is to make their tackles. Last weekend, too many of them fell off relatively straightforward efforts and allowed the powerful Stade runners look even better than they are.

They'll know that blindside forward Sekou Macalou and Sergio Parisse will not need a second invitation to take them on in contact and need to learn from last week, when the Parisians didn't have to work hard for their scores.

The same problems need solving for Munster. When they get into good positions, they need to take their chances. When points present themselves, they need to oblige and not let the French side off the hook.

They must also support CJ Stander with ball in hand. The captain can only do so much and the extent to which he is carrying his team is remarkable. Tommy O'Donnell's recovery from his concussion is a boost, while Holland's job is likely to come around the ruck, where he'll be tasked with hitting as many breakdowns as possible.

While the points won't matter, Foley believes a win would help lift the pressure off himself and the players.

"A win this weekend would give a lot of confidence to the players, give a lot of belief back into the group," he said.

"It might take a bit of pressure off our family and friends, the stick that is being given out because it is a cocoon at times (in the squad).

"I often think I would hate to be yer man Anthony Foley out there because he is obviously getting an awful doing! I don't feel it, I don't see it.

"My mother and father probably feel it and see it and my kids probably see it and feel it, my wife will feel it and see it rather than me.

"We have got to play for them and we have got to play for the fact that they might get a bit of a respite for a week until maybe we lose again. It is important for our point of view that we do that."

Munster have never been out of Europe this early and they will look for a response, but their confidence must be at its lowest ebb after such a difficult week. Stade have plenty to play for, have the better scrum and more game-breakers. There could be more pain on the way.

Verdict: Stade Francais

MUNSTER - S Zebo; K Earls, F Saili, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, M Sagario; D Foley, M Chisholm; B Holland, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt). Reps: K O'Byrne, L O'Connor, J Ryan, D Ryan, R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, T O'Leary, L Amorosino.

STADE FRANCAIS - H Bonneval; W Vuidarvuwalu, J Danty, P Williams, J Arias; M Steyn, J Dupuy; Z Taulafo, L Panis, R Slimani; P Gabrillagues, P Papé; S Macalou, J Ross, S Parissé (capt). Reps: Z Zhvania, H van der Merwe, P Alo Emile, H Pyle, S Nicolas, J Tomas, J Plisson, J Sinzelle.

Ref - JP Doyle (England)

Munster v Stade Francais, Live, Sky Sports, 1.00pm

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