Wednesday 11 December 2019

Racing bring a huge level of skill, but I can't see Reds slipping up

Expert View

Keith Earls dots down for Munster against Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday – supporters in Thomond will be hoping for more of the same tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls dots down for Munster against Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday – supporters in Thomond will be hoping for more of the same tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

David Wallace

Playing at home in the European Cup you must always expect to win, and even with a confident Racing 92 in town this week, I anticipate a second win in a week for the province.

This will be far from a straightforward victory though. Despite a sluggish start to their season, Racing picked apart Stade Francais and Saracens in their last two games and come to Limerick with confidence levels going in the right direction.

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But their hosts aren't half bad either. One loss so far this season away to Cheetahs tells us they are on song, while they also showed admirable fighting qualities away to Ospreys last time out as the bonus point was wrapped up with the clock well past 80 minutes.

It looked as if that chance for a five-point win was gone, but all credit to them they came away with the result that their performance deserved. Doing that away from home in this competition is a difficult thing to do.

Managed

Only Munster and Exeter Chiefs managed it from the first round of games. Yes, Ospreys are going through a tough run and were shorn of their internationals and injured players, but they fought very hard all the way to the end.

You can't complain with the win and I think the players are playing a brand of rugby that they enjoy. There is still a bit to go with regard to the sharpness of their handling and general attacking skills, but they are certainly going in the right direction.

On occasion the ball hasn't gone perfectly to hand, and it's those skills that the top teams can execute under pressure 99 per cent of the time.

Munster had a very solid set-piece at the weekend, which is vital for the game-plan they want to use, but it all boiled down to the maul at the very end and that was a brilliantly executed move from the pack.

They didn't rush the drive, they waited to get themselves set and with Billy Holland and CJ Stander at the front they snaked over for a vital try. What a huge point that could be at the end of the pool stages.

Even more important than clinching the bonus point was the hunger the lads displayed to get the result. They had to grind it out. The first try didn't arrive until shortly before half-time and when Keith Earls and Andrew Conway bagged the two in a minute it looked like a foregone conclusion, but they had to earn their fourth try. I'm sure that was a sweet score for them.

It really is a pool of the unknown for Munster all of a sudden. It looks like Saracens might be happy to rest their top players for the competition this year due to their issues, although by the time Munster play them in the back-to back games they could have a stronger team on the field. It might even have been better to get Saracens first up, but at least the first game of that double-header takes place in Limerick.

Whatever happened last week Munster will face a totally different challenge this weekend and the way that Racing took Saracens apart tells us what sort of form they are in. I see Simon Zebo only came on late last weekend, but Donnacha Ryan seems to be flying it down there. He has been a thorn in Munster's side when he played against them, but even now his game seems to have gone up another notch. They are a very impressive team and they look so strong when they are song.

Last weekend guys like Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas and Finn Russell caught the eye and all three topped the line-break charts in Europe with four apiece, but in my opinion it's the likes of Camille Chat and Ryan that set the tone for the team.

When Munster last played Racing in Thomond, Leone Nakarawa was the man they had to watch. They doubled up on him and stifled his offloading ability with a great defensive effort. He is unlikely to feature after his extended holiday post-World cup, but in Vakatawa they still have a Fijian influence on hand to potentially cause havoc.

With Russell it's vital that Munster turn the tables on him, try to pressurise him in that pivotal position and get a few big carries down his channel.

If he is given a free run he can be very dangerous, so he has to be kept busy on the hind foot with a pile of Thomond Park pressure coming his way.

Smooth

Zebo was scoring and setting up tries for fun last year, and it hasn't been such smooth sailing for him this season. Beware though, he is a guy that you discount at your peril. He is such an amazing talent, he is deceptively strong, has great body fight in contact... it looks like you have him and next thing he has slipped away. After the arrival of his new son this week he will be on a high so don't be surprised to see him come back to Munster and make a massive impact.

Whatever happens the three former players will get a huge welcome, but I hope they go home empty-handed.

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