Struggling Munster should still have too much in hand for poor Edinburgh
Such is their capacity for walking tightropes in the competition they helped make as much as anyone, Munster have been dangling more dangerously than this before. But, shorn of many of those who orchestrated acts of escapology over the years, they need to rediscover some of the old balance to their game if they are to negotiate the latest in their do-or-die missions.
As Donncha O’Callaghan crystalised it so succinctly during the week, this is their season in 80 minutes, so that they can have another 80 minutes at home to Racing next week. The nagging doubts are due to the 80 minutes from last week.
There is encouragement, with O’Callaghan, BJ Botha, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo all back, while Conor Murray has been passed fit to start, and Mike Sherry has recovered sufficiently from his ankle strain to be named on the bench, with Damien Varley starting.
The doubts also emanate from the knowledge that the Munster of old would be in a healthier position. In a campaign of unusual profligacy, they were 10-0 and 10-3 up and cruising away to Racing in their opener when refereeing mistakes, and tactical and handling errors, invited the home side into the game, and were leading with five minutes to go when shooting themselves in the foot again.
Even away to Saracens, trailing 13-16 against opponents who had been reduced to 14 men, had Ronan O’Gara landed either or especially both of the drop goal and penalty chances which came his way during that 10-minute spell, it’s hard not to believe Munster wouldn’t have gone on and won or at least drawn.
Had that been the case, they would now effectively be in pole position, as they would be level with Saracens on 12 points but with a superior head-to-head record. Come kick-off here, they’ll at least know the outcome of Racing v Saracens in Nantes today, but either way they have to win.
In the black
In the red of Munster, O’Gara has long since been in the black, for in the course of scoring 2,494 points for his province, including a record 1,326 in the Heineken Cup, he has bailed Munster out on countless occasions.
For sure Munster are going through a period of transition, with O’Gara, Doug Howlett and O’Callaghan the only survivors from their Cup-winning sides of ’06 and ’08 in this line-up, and this has been compounded by the transition in style under Rob Penney.
The problem is Munster appear to have almost gone full circle in that they are now as dependant as ever on O’Gara’s boot. Even in last week’s one-dimensional defeat to Cardiff, O’Gara’s tactical kicking out of hand was about their only source of go-forward ball.
O’Gara needs to take the ball flatter but to this end it would also greatly help him if he had more runners on his inside and outside shoulders, to give Munster variety. And if James Downey is to be signed, and picked, then surely it also makes sense to utilise him more.
Not alone had 35 minutes elapsed last week before he trucked the ball up the middle in trademark fashion, Downey’s ability to free his hands and offload inside (a rare inside pass on the night) was the threatening move of the first half. Likewise his link with Casey Laulala in the second.
In Penney’s worthy desire to instil more width to their game, Munster reverted too much to that Canterbury type last week, but in the second-half of the first meeting against Edinburgh (remarkably Munster’s first in the Cup against Scottish opposition) they mixed this with their maul and reaped the reward of four second-half tries.
Conceding points is less of an obvious concern. Munster have missed just 20 tackles in 320 minutes of rugby; their completion rate of 93 per cent is the best in the tournament. For their part, Edinburgh are the competition’s most impotent team, with just four penalties in four matches.
They appear to have over-achieved last season in reaching the semi-finals. On Newstalk during the week, Scott Hastings ventured that he could never remember them being at such a low ebb, that the senior players hadn’t delivered and that there was no discernible game plan.
The suspicion lurks within Munster that their former scrumhalf Michael Bradley will have Edinburgh primed for one big performance.
But even without Paul O’Connell there was a better, if less potent, mix to Munster’s game with the Saracens bruisers, and if there is again, they should be able to overcome a badly malfunctioning Edinburgh.
EDINBURGH: G Tonks; D Fife, B Cairns, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), R Rees; A Jacobsen, S Lawrie, WP Nel, G Gilchrist, S Cox, S McInally, D Basilaia, D Denton. Replacements: A Titterrell, R Hislop, G Cross, N Talei, R Grant, P Francis, B Atiga, S Visser.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; R OGara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha, D OCallaghan, D Ryan, P OMahony, T ODonnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: M Sherry, W Du Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala. Referee: R Poite (France). Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/1 Edinburgh, 25/1 Draw, 1/5 Munster. Verdict: Munster to win.