Munster have the nous to edge it
Racing Métro v Munster:ANOTHER SEASON, the same questions being asked of Munster. Are the old dogs still fit for the hard road? And can the new breed rise to the challenge?
Just like last year when Castres moved their game against Munster to a bigger venue, Racing Métro have relocated to the Stade de France for their opening home fixture. Around 30,000 tickets have been sold for today’s clash.
Between their international players and the Paris derby, Gonzalo Quesada’s side have some experience of playing at the national stadium. But so, too, do a few of the visitors – albeit if Paul O’Connell has yet to win there in six appearances for Ireland.
The very fact O’Connell’s name is on today’s team sheet represents a huge psychological boost for Munster. And while much has been made of the transitional nature of this Munster side under a new coaching team, a glance at the two sides’ history in this competition is revealing.
Racing have played just 12 games in the Heineken Cup compared to Munster’s 122 and they lost all three home games last season – to Cardiff, London Irish and Edinburgh.
In terms of European experience, backrow Antoine Battut leads the way with nine appearances. Contrast that with Ronan O’Gara, who has played 104 times in the Heineken Cup for Munster and has scored 1,298 points. As Racing forwards coach Simon Raiwalui said in the build-up, the likes of O’Gara, O’Connell and Doug Howlett give Munster “experience that you can’t buy”.
While Munster will lament the loss of Keith Earls and Wian du Preez, the home side have more than their fair share of selection problems. Twelve players are unavailable through injury, with Mathieu Belie the latest of three potential options at outhalf to be ruled out. Another of those, Juan Martin Hernandez, only returned to training on Thursday after getting back from international duty, and he sits out this game along with the three other Argentinians.
That means emergency signing Olly Barkley, who arrived from Bath just two weeks ago, starts at number 10.
Confidence could also be an issue, with Racing having lost two games in a row and unsettled by the expectation Castres coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will take over next season. Quesada’s future is therefore uncertain, and with away trips to Perpignan and Toulouse to come after the first two Heineken Cup fixtures, he will also have the Top 14 on his mind.
That does not mean Munster will have it easy today. Far from it, indeed, when you consider Racing’s experienced frontrow of Italian Andrea Lo Cicero and French internationals Dimitri Szarzewski and Luc Ducalcon. Much could depend on how competitive Munster are at set-piece time.
Racing are miserly in defence and have certainly picked their strongest available line-up. Their back line has plenty of talent but former coach Simon Mannix – now in charge of Munster’s backs – will know them inside out.
Like the visitors, Racing are trying to play a more adventurous game this season. Having tried to run the ball in torrential rain during last week’s defeat to Montpellier, though, they are unlikely to be as foolhardy today.
Ultimately, it is worth remembering that a Munster team supposedly in transition won all three of their away games last season. If they withstand the early onslaught and restrain the Racing forwards, then experience in key positions could see them home again.
RACING MÉTRO: B Fall; J Jane, M Bergamasco, F Estebanez, J Saubade; O Barkley, M Machenaud; A Lo Cicero, D Szarzewski, L Ducalcon; K Ghezal, F C Van der Merwe; A Battut, J Cronje, S Matadigo. Replacements: T Bianchin, E Ben Arous, F Metz, B Le Roux, C Gerondeau, S Descons, V Vakatawa, B Salemane Sa.
MUNSTER: I Keatley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R OGara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, B Botha; B Holland, P OConnell; D Ryan, S Dougall, P OMahony. Replacements: M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, D OCallaghan, P Butler, P Stringer, D Barnes, D Hurley.
Referee: G Garner(England).
Verdict: Munster to edge it.