Saturday 19 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'This Munster team might never get a better shot'

Age profile, experience and fitness suggest this is Reds' time despite tough route to final

Red tide rising: CJ Stander acknowledges Munster supporters after the Champions Cup victory over Gloucester last October. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Red tide rising: CJ Stander acknowledges Munster supporters after the Champions Cup victory over Gloucester last October. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Munster's Camino to St James' Park is paved with danger. They managed the first step through a treacherous pool, but it only gets harder from here on in as they look to end their 11-year wait for a Heineken Champions Cup.

For this generation of players, there may never be a better shot at the title.

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After losing last season's semi-final in Bordeaux, Peter O'Mahony uttered the immortal line that he was sick of learning lessons from defeat. It was the province's second successive trip to the last four, their fourth in six seasons and they appeared to be no closer to getting back to the big stage.

A month later they lost to Leinster in the PRO14 semi-final a week after watching their rivals lift a fourth European title since Munster's last. It was all grist to the mill.

Considering they changed coach mid-season, it was remarkable that Munster got that far at all a year ago. In truth, retaining their top-four status in both competitions was an achievement for Johann van Graan who inherited an unfamiliar group of players with a third of the season already played.

This year is different.

The squad is stronger, the injury profile is still excellent and the players who have driven Munster's competitiveness since the team of 2008 retired are all in their prime.

CJ Stander is 28, O'Mahony and Conor Murray are 29, Dave Kilcoyne is 30 and Keith Earls is 31. Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo have left for Paris, but the core of the team that was there under Rob Penney, Anthony Foley and Rassie Erasmus remains and they have plenty of big-game experience.

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With next year's tournament kicking off two weeks after the World Cup concludes in Japan, there is a danger that it could be another lost year as 2015/'16 was when all three Irish entrants crashed out before the knockouts began.

The chances of having so many leading men fit at the same time when the knockouts roll around are slim. Today, Van Graan should be able to pick close to his strongest match-day 23 for tomorrow's clash with Edinburgh at Murrayfield.

It won't be an easy game; the Scots are resurgent under Richard Cockerill and are hoping to attract a record crowd of more than 40,000 to the stadium.

Munster may be the bookies' favourites, but their fans are nervous.

Emerging from a pool that included Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester and Castres was an achievement, but it took a toll in that the province didn't earn enough points to earn a home quarter-final.

No team has mastered this competition like Munster and their template route through the knockouts involves earning a Thomond Park quarter-final.

Not only is a big Limerick gate worth plenty to the club coffers, the chances of progressing are all the better.

They have won 13 of their 17 last-eight clashes - nine of those wins were at Thomond Park and four were earned away from home. Three of Munster's quarter-final losses were away and their only home last-eight loss was against Ulster in 2012.

So, going to Edinburgh is fraught with danger but Munster have the quality to progress. If they win, it is likely to be Saracens who will block their path to the final, but Munster are a better team than the one that struggled against the two-time champions in 2017.

Van Graan has added to the squad that reached the last four last season with players of real quality.

For a pair of recruits like Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne to earn nominations for the European Player of the Tournament on the basis of their first six games for a new club is an impressive feat.

And while those two capture most of the headlines, the arrival of Alby Mathewson has been crucial to the province's season. The All Black was signed as injury cover for Conor Murray and has had his deal extended twice. He'll be around to cover during the World Cup, but there are no guarantees he'll be allowed to continue beyond that point.

Bonus

Having such a quality operator as back-up to Murray is a real bonus to Van Graan's squad depth, particularly when Murray is enduring a difficult campaign.

Under Jerry Flannery, they have weaponised their scrum, while Jean Kleyn, Beirne and Billy Holland have built a formidable lineout in conjunction with O'Mahony.

In turn, their back-row lead an excellent breakdown effort and they have ball-carrying power in abundance.

Murray may be struggling for form, but he remains world-class and if Carbery is not yet at that point he is getting there. They haven't yet unlocked the weapons outside them, but the potential is there.

Their team and bench is strong and they have experienced the hurt in the last couple of seasons.

The time is right to strike - it's up to Munster to take this chance.

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