Saturday 21 September 2019

Munster hoping their return to Lansdowne won't bring back bad memories

Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Sportsfile
Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There was so much to Munster's 2016/17 campaign, it seems churlish to boil it down to brass tacks but at the end of it all they finished with battered pride on the Aviva Stadium turf. Twice.

Tomorrow, they will return to the venue in the hope that lessons have been learnt from their Champions Cup semi-final loss to Saracens and their PRO14 final defeat to Scarlets.

In Leinster, they have the perfect barometer for their progress. A fellow top-four European team who will road-test their game ahead of the Champions Cup challenges to come.

Bragging rights are on the line, momentum will be nice but for Rassie Erasmus and his coaches this will be a valuable experience in terms of gauging where the team are at.

Against Saracens, they came up against a juggernaut far further down the line in terms of their development. Scarlets was more of a shock.

At the end of a season in which Munster's game-plan was more than strong enough to beat the vast majority of teams, they were shown they still had some distance to travel against the elite. Absorbing that message is the key.

"If you lose against Scarlets and get beaten by Saracens, and you don't implement the things you learned, it was only a beating, it wasn't a lesson learned," Erasmus said this week. "Last year, our defence, the mechanical side of the game was pretty much intact but when we needed some dynamic attacking options, decision-making, vision, those kind of things. They always take longer to install in a team.

"We worked a lot on those things during pre-season, and out of the five games, probably in three or four of them it did come through.

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"We made some changes at the breakdown stuff, nothing mind-blowing, but things we think can help us go a step further. All those things we'll need.

"But the proof will be when we do it under pressure, in an intense situation, with a lot of people watching, with close scoreboard pressure - the moment you do that, that's lessons learned."

That pressure should come in the face of the advancing blue wall tomorrow. Erasmus was only getting used to his surroundings when he first visited the glass bowl in Dublin 4 a year ago for the first of three losses at the venue.

The Leinster defeat was Anthony Foley's final game in charge. His tragic death occurred a week later and after that the Reds somehow mustered a scarcely believable run of results that drove them to their best season in years.

This season, the emotion has been removed from the equation and the focus will purely be on the rugby.

The departure of Donnacha Ryan and injuries to his replacement Gerbrandt Grobler have weakened their challenge up front which will put more pressure on Felix Jones' attack to deliver.

Francis Saili has departed, but JJ Hanrahan and Chris Farrell have arrived. News that Jaco Taute will miss the rest of the campaign after damaging his cruciate is a bitter blow given his importance on both sides of the ball.

Still, they will back themselves to win collisions and get go-forward ball. In Conor Murray, they have a world-leading scrum-half and the next step is for Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley to step up their capacity to identify opportunities and be ruthless in taking them.

The Kiwi came in for deserved criticism after the Saracens game, but he was operating without the injured Murray and behind a retreating pack.

Up against a soon-to-be international rival in Johnny Sexton tomorrow, he will want to catch the Ireland selectors' eyes.

Decision-making will be key to that, but having a ruthless approach to the attack is the key.

These games are often slug-fests settled by a moment of quality. In recent years, those moments have come from the blue side of the divide.

Putting the Aviva hoodoo to bed by showing they have more attacking strings to their bow would represent progress for the men in red.



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