Sunday 21 October 2018

Munster backs to wall - just how they like it

It’s early days, but it looks like Johann van Graan will be good for Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
It’s early days, but it looks like Johann van Graan will be good for Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In recent enough times when Munster were struggling to get up to speed for European competition, there was a certain choreography to be enacted with the media. This revolved around how their poor form in the lead-up to the tournament would actually be the perfectly timed poke in the arse they needed to magic up the right moves on the big day.

It's questionable whether the journalist concerned had a shred of belief in the theory, and certain that whoever it was directed at did not. But the dance would unfold anyway along predictable lines.

This sprang to mind last week when Munster were circling the wagons around Gerbrandt Grobler. And Anthony Foley's image popped up front and centre. Regardless of how the late coach would have felt on the issue of employing dopers, you can be sure Foley would have presented this scenario as one where Grobler was now in red, and, like Tammy Wynette, Munster were standing by their man.

Unlike the guff of the 'bad form equals required reaction' days, the current situation actually has some merit come match day, for even in professional sport where it's all about the aggregate of small stuff, having a cause helps. And Munster have a cause.

Like Castres, they also have some form. It's interesting that they have got more credit for the way they lost indoors in Racing's new-age stadium last weekend than sometimes they got for winning in the fresh air at Thomond Park.

It's early days but it looks like Johann van Graan will be good for them, as Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery already are. When Tadhg Beirne joins them in the summer, a move that will accelerate his journey towards Test status, they will be better again with a pack well-endowed with grunt.

The sight of Simon Zebo in the departure lounge is unsettling though. Every deft touch - his one-handed flick against Racing was sublime - only highlights the scale of the task in replacing him. Munster need to pull off something special to limit that damage.

It was the form of another veteran in Paris that really stood out, however. The way rugby has gone size-crazy it would be unusual for Keith Earls ever to come up against a physically inferior opposite number. Or a smaller one at any rate.

Now settling into his 30s, and loosening up for his 10th season of international rugby, it's as if the raft of deposits made in the experience bank are paying out in jackpot style.

A few things stood out in Paris: one was the composure to quickly get over the poor decision to kick instead of pass in his own 22, which opened the door for Racing's first try; the other was pretty much everything else from vision, to footwork, to pace - all laid out nicely in his two-try performance. And best of all, there was his leadership. Earls is hugely important to the way Munster play, and he has never played better.

On the other wing Andrew Conway too is in flying form. Getting out of Leinster, and the re-think that forced him to embrace, was the best thing that could have happened to him. Between himself, Earls and Zebo it's a back three bang in form, the sort of unit you'd need for the knockouts.

With Niall Scannell back on the bench it strengthens Munster's options in support of an unchanged team from Paris. And despite Castres showing real intent in the way they demolished the Tigers last weekend - to their credit they did a good job on their points difference - this one is set up for the home team, which would give them a 10th win from 14 games in this fixture. Safe passage into the quarter-final is a slightly bigger deal.

Castres still have an interest in this pool but you'd imagine, for the team currently fourth in the Top 14, the visit of Racing in the domestic competition next weekend is now a bit more important for them.

They have made five changes from the side that tore Tigers apart, two of them at half-back where Rory Kockott comes in for Ludovic Radosavljevic, and star turn Benjamin Urdapilleta is given a rest. Castres are a different side without the Argentinian at 10 - and not for the better.

Still, they will bring a big and powerful set-piece and how this battle pans out in the early stages will go a long way towards shaping the outcome. Munster's backs are to the wall here in a couple of respects: needing to deliver a win to get into the quarter finals; and needing to be tight as a drum against the outside world. Neither position would be unfamiliar for them.

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