Red Army drinking at the last-chance saloon once again
Once more into the breach and all that. The last day of the last round of pool matches and Munster are drinking at the last-chance saloon. Given the weekend’s inclement weather, it may not quite be set fair, but with Thomond Park full to capacity and Munster on another of their do-or-die missions, it is assuredly set up for them.
In a campaign of missed opportunities, the inability to win with a bonus point last week in Edinburgh has left them less elbow room but the victory does at least still leave them with their destiny just about in their own hands.
Even going into this weekend, they know that a five-point haul tomorrow will assure them of a place in the last eight for the 14th time in 15 seasons barring a freakish result or two, such as Montpellier or Toulouse losing with two bonus points, as well as Leinster winning with a bonus point.
Bonus point win
Come kick-off, they will also have the advantage of knowing Leinster and Montpellier’s results today, and it could even be that Munster might only need a win of any hue. But mindful that Toulouse could also end up on 19 points with a bonus point defeat away to Leicester in tomorrow’s final game, they may well need that bonus point win. Even if Leinster, currently also on 15 points but with one try less, do win with a bonus point, Munster would know exactly how many tries are required of them.
Losing Ronan O’Gara to suspension is untimely, and the ensuing promotion for Ian Keatley is Rob Penney’s only change to last week’s starting line-up, as he has again resisted the option of promoting Casey Laulala and shifting Keith Earls and Simon Zebo out, preferring instead to continue the investment in Felix Jones at fullback and Earls at outside centre. There is again no place for Peter Stringer on the bench.
Although the rains are forecast to relent, given the lack of penetration from their backs, allied to the circumstances, O’Gara’s tactical kicking would have been tailormade for the occasion. Not having anything like O’Gara’s vast experience, this was not the aspect of Keatley’s game which shone in the round two match against Edinburgh. But his place-kicking has been very accurate this season, and he does provide a running threat.
In any event, O’Gara’s loss is more than offset by Racing changing all bar one of their starting line-up which threatened to blow Saracens away with three tries in the first 20 minutes last week in their 35,000 sell-out in Nantes, only to implode spectacularly.
The veteran winger Sereli Bobo, one of their most culpable players last week, is the only player retained, as seven of last week’s bench, amongst them Munster’s one-time prop Julien Brugnaut and Olly Barkley, are promoted. In addition to the suspended Dimitri Szarzewski and Fabien Estebanez, there is no place even amongst their replacements for Juan Martin Hernandez or his brilliant compatriot Juan Imhoff on the wing.
Demoralised and drained from last week’s anticlimax, and seven points adrift of the top six play-off places domestically in ninth place, Racing appear more concerned with their trek to Bordeaux/Begles next Friday.
On the corresponding weekend on a freezing Friday night in Paris, Leinster achieved a bonus point win against a Racing side whose squad depth and fitness levels looked singularly unimpressive.
Talent in ranks
Under the captaincy of Jacques Cronje there is talent in their ranks, naturally, and they have their main ball carrier Maxi Matedigo on the bench. Given any encouragement they could conceivably swing from the hip. But if Munster establish an early stranglehold, then that could quickly disabuse Racing of any serious interest. Munster’s scrum remains their most potent weapon, which is particularly important against a French side, and if they play to these strengths (why didn’t they take a scrum with the last play of the first-half a week ago?), get David Kilcoyne, James Coughlan, Peter O’Mahony and James Coughlan rumbling close-in, perhaps use James Downey even more than last week and don’t start going wide too early, too deep or too often, then a four-try win is within their compass.
In a side looking short of confidence and leadership, were O’Gara and Paul O’Connell there you’d have little doubt about Munster’s progress. Facing into their first Heineken Cup encounter for 14 campaigns and 105 ties without either of their totems adds to the unease. Without them, this has become even more of a landmark game, but all the more so were they to progress, and unlike a week ago, they will have utter clarity in what will be required of them. That should unclutter the mind.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: M Sherry, W Du Preez, J Ryan, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, C Laulala.
RACING METRO 92: G Germain; J Jane, G Bousses, A Dumoulin, S Bobo; O Barkley, M Belie; J Brugnaut, B Noirot, B Salemane Sa; K Ghezal, F Metz; A Battut, B Le Roux, J Cronje (capt). Replacements: Thomas Bianchin, Andrea Lo Cicero, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Jone Qovu Nailiko, Benjamin Fall, Santiago Dellape, Sebastien Descons, Sakiusa Matadigo.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Forecast: Munster to do what they have to do.