Monday 14 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: This Leinster team can't beat Munster at Thomond Park

Sean O'Brien of Leinster goes over to score his side's fourth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Leinster and Northampton Saints. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien of Leinster goes over to score his side's fourth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Leinster and Northampton Saints. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

They'd lost to Connacht at home. Then away to Dragons. Back-to-back defeats to Leicester followed - before, on December 27 last year - Munster watched Leinster rock up in Thomond Park intent on taking their scalp.

And they got it - winning 24-7 - to leave the home side nursing a fifth defeat in a row.

A year is a long time in sport, though.

This Christmas Leinster land in Thomond Park facing the same team but one with a completely different mentality.

They've beaten the New Zealand Maoris, got bonus-point victories over Glasgow and Leicester in Europe, taken Ulster and Glaswegian scalps on the road, tanked the Ospreys and Treviso in the Pro12 and arrive into today's fixture with just one defeat in eight games and just three defeats all year.

So what's changed with Munster?

The answer is almost everything.

First up, there's bite in the pack and energy in the performances. Having started the season with a clean slate, the tragedy of Axel's passing has given them a cause to fight for. And they have done that - creating their own identity along the way.

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After losing to Leinster at the Aviva back in October, they've played some superb rugby, and while it can be challenging to keep a run of form going, recreating the same level of intensity and emotion week after week, they've proved impressively consistent. Okay, they lost last week in Leicester, where they failed to retain possession for sufficiently long periods, but the Tigers are a proud club, and were always likely to bounce back from a 38-0 defeat.

The point is that Munster have bounced back from a bad season.

Presence

The arrival of Rassie Erasmus along with defence coach, Jacques Nienabar, has clearly helped but so too has Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery's work on the coaching paddock, while Erasmus' presence on the management ticket allowed Axel to have a more hands-on role with the forwards in both pre-season and the first months of the new campaign.

And that made a huge difference.

As has Jacob Taute, who has been a revelation while the improvement within a number of players who were there last year is notable. In particular, both Scannell bothers have made a significant impact - Niall, the hooker, taking advantage of Mike Sherry and Duncan Casey's absence through injury to feature in every game Munster have played this year.

Rory, the younger of the Scannell brothers, has also played well, and whereas last year Munster lacked a cutting edge in attack, now - thanks to Conor Murray's continued excellence, Tyler Bleyendaal's brilliance at the control centre and Scannell's creativity at 12 - Munster have a different look to them.

And that is before we mention John Ryan and Darren Sweetnam's improvement, Peter O'Mahony's recovery from injury, Simon Zebo's constant threat in the scoring zone and a new-found depth of quality on the bench.

Their performances this year have been full of intent and energy and whereas last year they were occasionally bullied - this season no one has pushed them around. More to the point, whenever there have been setbacks - against Cardiff early on, then Leinster - they've bounced back.

So, in short, it's a much harder task facing Leinster today compared to the one they were set this time last year.

Nonetheless, it's hard to find much wrong with the job Leo Cullen has done this season. Motoring well in Europe - breathing down Munster's neck in the Pro12, Leinster have lost just two of their last nine, and even though they have changed seven of their pack from last week's destruction of Northampton - Tadhg Furlong being the only one to survive - it is worth pointing out that seven of the new-look pack are Irish internationals. And the eighth player, Ross Molony, is good enough to make that step-up at some stage in the future.

Yet while a large number of their forwards have big-game experience - not too many of the starting XV have won before in Limerick.

Plus another point needs to be raised. When it comes to derby matches, everything changes. The build-up is bigger, highlighted by the fact that the sold-out signs are visible again - although this raises the question: 'Where were all these people last year when Munster were struggling?'

It is a thorny subject which I think about at times. While on the one hand, it's good that people are excited about Munster again - it also has to be said that the team needed the terraces filled last year when they were struggling for confidence. One thing is for sure, Leinster aren't struggling for confidence right now.

They were outstanding in their two fixtures against Northampton - and just as Axel profited from Erasmus' arrival in pre-season, so too has Cullen benefited from the addition of Stuart Lancaster to his coaching team.

A thoroughly decent man, as well as being a smart and experienced coach, Lancaster's presence as an authoritative mentor to both Cullen and this young group of Leinster players has undoubtedly had an impact on both the team's performances and results.

"My perception of the Leinster way is playing smart rugby, making sure you can challenge teams in the right areas of the field, having a strong set-piece, a good defence, a strong attacking game," Lancaster said last week. "We will be positive."

Abundance

They should be because they have strength in depth, quality in abundance - and a nice habit of producing their own young players.

But this will be an altogether different test for these young players as Thomond Park - under lights - for derby games, can be a hostile environment.

I doubt if Cullen and Lancaster are throwing in the towel with his team selection but deep down they will know how hard it is to get two wins from these mid-season derby games, especially when the IRFU's player-management programme has to be adhered to.

So while Leinster have impressed me with their cohesion and ball retention, I see this as a real opportunity for Munster to reverse that result at the Aviva. It's not that I see this as a poor Leinster team. In fact, I consider it to be a good one. But not good enough to beat Munster this evening.

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