Wednesday 21 February 2018

Tony Ward: I’m still not convinced Munster can go all the way but this squad won’t be bullied by anyone, anywhere

Simon Zebo continues to play with a smile on his face Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo continues to play with a smile on his face Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I'm still not convinced Munster have the all-round game to go the whole way but they did produce another typically gutsy and clinical performance when the heat was on.

Thomond Park remains a fortress in top-tier European competition - yesterday's win was their 60th from 64 games - and home advantage was always going to be a factor as Munster secured a record 17th quarter-final from 23 attempts.

There is no better place than Thomond on a European knockout night. Supporters make atmosphere but it takes a performance to ignite that ambiance.

What we witnessed for the umpteenth time was a Munster squad - and massive credit must go to Johann van Graan, Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and this newly-assembled backroom staff - seizing the occasion.

We won't lose the run of ourselves but what we got yesterday was a new batch of Munster players buying into the history and the tradition that has made the southern province the most respected side in Europe.

They may not have as many cups in the locker as Toulouse, Toulon or Leinster but they are the entity more than any other who make the greatest club competition in global rugby the fantastic yearly spectacle that it is.

Equipped

I still believe Leinster are the best equipped in the quest to bring the Champions Cup to these shores for the first time.

That said, I'm not too sure there has ever been a bigger booby prize for finishing as No 1 seeds than having to face the reigning champions, albeit at home in the Aviva, in the quarter-final. Saracens are the nightmare scenario.

Back to yesterday, I loved the way Munster went about their business.

It was bad enough that both sides had to kill three hours before actually getting stuck into each other, but there was a calm assurance about this Munster performance from the first minute to last.

Even when the early stats showed the percentages in possession and territory at 87 to 13 in favour of Castres, Peter O'Mahony and Co were always in control.

A solitary Rory Kockott penalty was all the visitors had to show for that early dominance before the home team went on to rack up 48 unanswered points.

Castres eventually folded but there was a real sense of control in Munster's performance and given the context, that ranked up there with their very best.

That is some statement, but it was that good.

There were so many stand-out individual performances from those decked in red.

Simon Zebo continues to play with a smile on his face and in the process brings out the confident best in so many others around him.

How Joe Schmidt is going to select his wing men to face the French in a fortnight is beyond me as Andrew Conway and Keith Earls were again majestic in everything they did.

We have big men who can fill the Irish flanks but just how cool is it to have small guys like Earls (playing the best rugby of his life), Conway and Jordan Larmour establishing new parameters?

Continuing that theme of less substantial units is the defined role of Chris Cloete and Conor Oliver in the Van Graan way of doing things.

Cloete is stronger and more aggressive at the breakdown, and the difference he is making is marked.

In those early stages, when Castres hit the ground running, it was Cloete, O'Mahony and CJ Stander fighting and turning the tide.

It is a lot easier for the back-row when the tight five are dominating but Munster have in place a back-row capable of operating with amazing impact even when the pack is under the cosh.

Stander is an extraordinary player with or without the ball, and if there is one man they can ill afford to lose, along with Conor Murray, it is the No 8.

Ian Keatley's excellent form also continues. He was efficient and assertive in everything he did and his goal-kicking was on the money again.

In the unfortunate early exodus of Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin provided a timely reminder that what Cian Healy and Jack McGrath can do seamlessly in Leinster, he and Kilcoyne can replicate.

While Munster looked well coached and organised, whether winning or defending the ball out of touch, Ulster sadly looked all over the place in that key aspect over in Coventry.

The bottom line sees the best two Irish sides deservedly qualifying for home quarter-finals.

Whether Toulon are a better alternative to La Rochelle we'll know come April but even at this distance we can take it that Munster will not be bullied by any team, anywhere.

Another giant step has been taken.

Irish Independent

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