We must keep destiny in our own hands -- Penney
Battle for possession and line-out crucial as Munster look to plunder pivotal victory from a showdown with Perpignan that has little margin for error
MUCH is made of the pivotal nature of the December back-to-back games in the Heineken Cup, but for Munster the real business starts here as they look to put two away wins together in two of Europe's least welcoming locations.
First stop, Perpignan and the Stade Aime Giral where Rob Penney's men can consolidate their position on top of Pool 6 and end the Catalans' interest in the tournament. Then, they can turn their attention to next month's trip to Kingsholm and a potential group decider against Gloucester.
After scoring five tries against the same opponents last week, the Reds will be expecting a backlash.
The nature of that response may have been tempered somewhat by the Top 14 club's decision to rest Welsh pair Luke Charteris and James Hook, along with South African scrum-half Dewaldt Duvenage.
The players had to be rested at some point under French rules, but director of rugby Marc Delpoux has consciously prioritised the upcoming league battles with Castres and Stade Francais over Europe, undermining Lifeimi Mafi's claim that a quarter-final spot was a pre-season goal for the Catalans.
Club president Francois Riviere threw his toys out of the pram this week by complaining to the ERC about referee Greg Garner's performance at Thomond Park and that will put pressure on this week's team of all-RFU team of officials led by Irish-born referee JP Doyle, but it may also have lessened the club hierarchy's interest in Europe.
With the club struggling in the Top 14 and down numbers already, it appears that that goal may be sacrificed, but the Catalans don't lose at home very often and rarely if ever lose two in a row at the Aime Giral. Just Munster's luck that Clermont stormed the fortress two weeks ago then.
Both teams field inexperience at half-back, with Italian newcomer Tommy Allan taking over from the injured Camille Lopez at out-half for Perpignan and Cathal Sheridan handed his first Heineken Cup start in Conor Murray's absence.
Ian Keatley, the senior partner in the relationship, is fit enough to start after shaking off the effects of the dead leg that forced him off during last week's win.
The most significant selections come up front, however, where Donnacha Ryan's availability is a significant boost, even if Donncha O'Callaghan did little wrong in the first game. Losing Charteris will deprive Perpignan of some of their line-out prowess, but his replacement Sebastien Vahaamahina is a bigger threat with ball in hand.
Having lost the collisions and been dominated at ruck time last weekend, the hosts will be putting an emphasis on the close quarter exchanges and Ryan's presence in the trenches will be a help if he can overcome any rust after his long absence.
English pair Richard Haughton and Luke Narraway also come into the team, while France international David Marty is restored to the bench.
James Cronin and BJ Botha are restored to the Munster team in place of Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer in an expected rotation of a front-row that will be targeted by the French, but there is no rest for Damien Varley.
Tommy O'Donnell's return on the bench provides cover for Sean Dougall, but one wonders if the decision to leave the ball-carrying abilities of CJ Stander aside will be one Penney regrets when they need an impact off the bench late on.
Munster found out all about the Catalans' willingness to have a cut last weekend and they left Limerick convinced that they left opportunities behind them, despite the heavy defeat.
The weather in the south of France was perfect for rugby yesterday, but the forecast rain and wind today may suit the visitors in slowing the opposition backs down.
Not that the Munster backs are any slouches. Keith Earls looks to have returned in fine fettle, while Johne Murphy is enjoying a good run of form.
Their ability to influence the game will come from the forwards' battle for possession and the line-out will have to improve after malfunctioning to a degree six days ago.
"The line-out is hard enough on hookers at the best of times without us dropping the quality of what we're doing. I think the quality of our jumping and lifting was poor," Paul O'Connell said.
"You want to build pressure and the best way to build pressure and momentum is by keeping the ball. When we had line-outs once or twice at the weekend, we turned it over; same when we went wide once or twice and that just releases pressure.
"I think at times over the weekend when we had the ball we looked very, very dangerous and looked very good, but we turned it over a little bit too easily."
If they can take care of the ball and give the backline a good platform, then Munster can find a way through and in a pool where the margin for error is minimal, they could do with four points rather than one or none.
Gloucester's win in Edinburgh and their potential to get the bonus point tomorrow at home to the Scots means that Munster will go to the English club next month needing to win either way. But they would prefer to do it looking over their shoulder than chasing.
"It's a crucial one," Penney confessed. "It's a biggie and it would certainly give us -- breathing space is the wrong word -- but it would give us an ability to continue being masters of our own destiny and not sitting on a knife edge waiting for other results to come in later on in the competition."
That defeat in Murrayfield put Munster on the back foot, but they haven't lost since and have worked their way back to the top of the pool without playing particularly well in either of their games since.
Four years ago an almost unrecognisable team came to this venue and put four tries on the French champions, a markedly stronger Perpignan side. It was a signature win that propelled Tony McGahan's side to the semi-finals.
It is a new era and not many of the faces remain, but those that do will recall the transformative nature of silencing the supporters in the Stade Aime Giral.
A repeat would be special and deeply satisfying. Anything less puts them back in trouble.
Munster don't make things easy for themselves, Murrayfield proved that. But they have clawed their way back to this point and, despite the absentees, they have just enough to reach the next rung.
PERPIGNAN -- J Michel; R Haughton, L Mafi, W Votu, S Guitoune; T Allan, N Durand; S Taofifenua, R Terrain, P Ion; S Vahaamahina, G Vilaceca; D Leo, A Strokosch, L Narraway (capt). Reps: G Guirado, P Cotet, JB Custoka, J Puril, T Ecochard, D Marty, T Benvenuti, JP Perez.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Sheridan; J Cronin, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: D Casey, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley.
REF -- JP Doyle (England)
PERPIGNAN V MUNSTER,
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