Friday 23 August 2019

Neil Francis: Pro12 silverware is important - but not as important as European seeding or Conor Murray's knee

Conor Murray receives treatment for a knee injury during last week’s victory over Ospreys
Conor Murray receives treatment for a knee injury during last week’s victory over Ospreys
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Before we get to the meat of the piece, we might just deal with the 'M' word again. The draw for the Champions Cup will be made on June 17 and there will be trepidation in some quarters as the harsh elements of a compacted draw of 20 teams unfold.

Munster have quietly and efficiently gone about their business finishing second in the Pro12 and doing what they had to do to get to the final this Saturday.

The Pro12 is a worthy competition and there is prestige and merit in winning it - why play 22 games throughout the season and not have a champion?

The real point here, lest it be lost in the rules, is that it is the champions of each league who get top seeding in the European Champions Cup.

Last year in the Aviva Premiership there was a little bit of a kerfuffle in relation to who was going to be the European top seed.

Saracens finished on top of the standings after the regular season with Northampton nine points back in second, but because the people who had hijacked the Heineken Cup were making it up as they went along, nobody was really sure.

By meritocracy, surely we meant on league standings that you qualify as top seed? But then we are calling it the Champions Cup, so surely the winners of the Grand Final would get top seeding?

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Yes, that is the way it should be, but bother and confound it, what happens, say, if in the Top 14 a team finishes sixth and gets to the play-offs and actually wins the final - is that fair and equitable?

Sometimes a sixth-placed side only wins 50pc of their fixtures, while the side that ends the regular season on top might have won 80-90pc of their fixtures, only to have a bad day in the final. Is that real meritocracy?

Saracens lost the Grand Final to Northampton last year and the Saints got the No 1 seeding.

Saracens chairman Nigel Wray - who was centrally involved in the hijack - had to go and get clarification. Nobody really knew. In the end, the champions of the Grand Final got the nod.

So for Munster, the prize is well worth winning. After finishing third and being knocked out in the semis last year by Glasgow, the men in red got Clermont and Sarries in their Heineken pool, which was a bit tough.

It was tough on Sarries too, because Northampton, as Aviva champions, got Racing Metro, Ospreys and Benetton Treviso.

Winning the Pro12 is one thing. A negotiable Heineken pool, though, is the real prize and if Munster win, the smiles will last all the way to June 17.

That said, Ospreys finished fifth last season and got Northampton, Racing and Treviso. If Leinster, who finished fifth this season, get a draw like that they will have dodged a bullet.

And they have already dodged one this week as Robbie Deans declined their entreaties.

The media tend to pull names out of the sky when it comes to vacant positions, without the faintest notion about their personality or whether or not they are a good fit for the squad or the franchise.

Right now, Leinster need a bully who will put fear into the squad.

Meanwhile, Munster with their indigenous coaching ticket have done better than Rob Penney's third last year and sixth the year before, and if they win the Pro12, they will do better in Europe next season than they did this year.

Maybe it is a reflection on the standard of the league - I don't think so - but Munster have scored an awful lot of tries this year. In fact the most by any side in the Pro12 ever - 68 is a very healthy state of affairs - up from 46 in Penney's first year and 56 in his second year.

Munster must be doing something right. They also don't concede too many either. If Glasgow, who I rate as favourites, want to fulfil their destiny then they will have to earn it.

For Munster, though, there is a large fly in the ointment - Conor Murray's medial ligament injury.

Here is the word of the Lord - a letter from St Joseph to the Munsterians: "And lo there was a disturbance within the Thomondites and their shepherd was laid low and the flock did not know what to do.

"The prophet's voice boomed from the sky and said if you risk my No 1 shepherd for the f***ing Pro12 final and he misses the great Passover I will curse you and all of your first-born sons will be turned into ladyboys and you will be stuck with two stars on your jersey forever."

If Murray plays - and it seems unlikely - Munster have a good chance of getting a victory. If he is injured and plays, that won't cut it. If he is out, Munster will struggle. Murray is Munster's most important player whether Paul O'Connell is in the side or not.

The halves control ball and in the big finals simple things like field position, the ability to put the ball in front of your pack and the aspect of putting pressure on your opponents from the air is crucial.

Glasgow's Henry Pyrgos is becoming a special talent, formidable with the ball in hand. If Murray plays, Pyrgos will be the Irishman's shadow; if Duncan Williams plays, Munster just don't get all their moving parts to move in sync.

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But the big picture may be the decider: Murray is far too important to Ireland to even consider risking him.

Glasgow still have to deal with a Munster pack that never tires of being competitive. Ulster did a good job on Glasgow at tight, nicking ball on the line and timing their nudge and squeeze well at scrum time.

Ulster's powerhouse back-row kept the normally demonstrative Josh Strauss in his box. Chris Fusaro and the ebullient Adam Ashe kept things together and absorbed a lot of Ulster's pressure.

CJ Stander, Paddy Butler and Peter O'Mahony will exert the same pressure but a lot closer in and I suspect that the Glasgow pack won't get that much time to indulge themselves in their new-found off-loading game.

Glasgow are unlucky that their highly effective midfield partnership of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett are out injured. They are both good passing centres and they make space for Stuart Hogg, whose invention and speed of thought will trouble Munster.

The fear for Munster is the spark of creativity from Nikola Matawalu or his Fijian compadre Leone Nakawara.

Glasgow came to play football against Leinster last year and did well till half-time and then got blown away.

They can play at a high tempo and can match teams who have the ability to shift up through the gears - but they were horribly exposed in the RDS last year and we get to learn whether they have stepped up from that performance or whether they realise that this will be an examination of a completely different kind.

Anthony Foley's pragmatism to prevail over Gregor Townsend's flair.

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