Sport Rugby

Monday 23 April 2018

Old spirit can save Munster from mire of their own making

Reds to twist knife against Gloucester despite uncertainty in province, writes David Kelly

Conor Murray
Conor Murray
David Kelly

David Kelly

Munster's approach to misfortune has always been steeped in defiance and resolve, never dismay and resignation.

They treat interruptions and impediments like knives. Whenever it may seem they are imperilled, they resolutely refuse to allow the blade to wound them. Instead, they grab the handle and set about wounding others.

As they unfurl themselves for the final furlong of Heineken Cup qualification, beginning in Gloucester this weekend, there seems to be as many supporters preparing to hide behind their pillows in wary anticipation as there are those confidently thrusting out their chests with unbridled optimism.

Uncertainty hovers in the air.

A trip to Kingsholm should not bode the appearance of threat -- Gloucester have been struggling badly -- but Munster folk sometimes fail to see the weakness in others, only themselves. Defeat in Ravenhill has fuelled the cragginess.

A myriad of obstacles seem to obtrude. They begin in a pivotal position, with the uncertainty at out-half continuing to nag the team.

Discard the cliched claptrap that competition is good for a side; Munster's strength for so long was predicated upon an imperturbable pre-eminence in the No 10 jersey.

Ongoing instability remains an issue; JJ Hanrahan's promotion to steer Munster into the last eight may seem inevitable to most. That it remains unsure to some reflects uncertainty.

The bigger picture is the unease amongst many supporters with the team's style of play, one that already undid them with such embarrassing repercussions in Edinburgh.

The man at the helm of the philosophy, Rob Penney doesn't appear to have any concrete word as regars his own longterm future.

Penney's assistant coach Simon Mannix and Munster's uncertainty in attack are inextricably linked. For all the genius and guile that propelled them to unlikely victory in Perpignan, at times their players have been so unco-ordinated that it seems they have suffered an attack of St Vitus' Dance.

There had been suggestions that Penney's guarantee of a new deal hung on the proviso that his sidekick would forfeit his. It now seems both men may be afforded one-year contracts; whether they are both happy with a compromise that offers precious little security remains to be seen.

The baffling delay in awarding new deals extends northwards; somehow Paul O'Connell's future remains in the balance, stemming only in part from his own clumsy chatter in the English media late last year.

Hence, Munster continue to be pegged back with questions about the future of their coach and most influential player; with few funds available to attract new signings, they are at least glad that the majority of their internal business has already been dusted. Of course, advancement in Europe can do wonders for the bottom lines of all concerned.

The last thing they needed was a crippling injury crisis but, for all the screaming headlines emanating from Ravenhill, Munster may be better set this week than last, even if just one senior hooker remains standing.

Conor Murray's return from injury couldn't be more propitious and Penney yesterday reiterated his positive vibes regarding his key decision-maker; indeed, Murray's return could heighten the prospect of Hanrahan starting, one suspects.

Hanrahan was a victim of a "tight groin" last weekend and supposedly remains so but whether that was to shield the coaches from a difficult selection quandary ahead of Ulster is, as always, impossible to infer.

With Keith Earls and Simon Zebo also set to strengthen their claims if they emerge from a week's training untroubled, and James Downey also responding vigorously, Munster can absorb any blows behind the scrum.

Within the pack, the ease with which they shunted Ulster around the park last Friday should arm them with supreme confidence this week.

Six years ago, Munster made this journey for a quarter-final brimming with fervour but nevertheless accompanied, as always, by familiar obstacles.

The day before the game, a milkshake did for Alan Quinlan what none of Europe's fiercest competitors had ever managed to achieve -- sending him into brief unconsciousness.

Ronan O'Gara was attacked by a diarrhoeic dose of such severity that he felt unsure of playing until hours before kick-off.

As if that wasn't enough, Marcus Horan strained his back in the warm-up, prompting a furious search for, first, Freddie Pucciariello and then his boots (located via a motorcycle cop on the already departed team bus).

On a day when Declan Kidney had boldly dumped his 2006 heroes Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer, Munster overcame another huge obstacle.

They would win the competition weeks later.

Few are saying that they are destined for a repeat this season but, as easy as it is for the crowd to say they cannot win it, there are few who would bet the mortgage against them amidst the most humdrum challenging pack in some time.

Gloucester virtually folded their tents as far as this competition is concerned in round two with their disdainful approach to the reverse fixture in Limerick.

Other issues may be decided further down the track. All Munster need to do this week is twist the knife. It is the only certainty worth worrying about.

Irish Independent

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