Trust Munster to make the right calls


RUBGY HEINKEN WORLD CUP: Pool One: Munster v Sale SharksEDGE-OF-THE-SEAT time once more. We’ve been here before, of course, pretty much every January for the last decade, but once again Munster’s Heineken Cup hopes hang in the balance and with it their season hangs on the line. Perhaps the Irish season with it.

Victory would more or less secure qualification but defeat could leave them perilously placed behind Sale in a last-day three-way tussle.

Although it was only last May when Munster completed perhaps the hardest earned H Cup of them all, the European champions have already played a couple of get-out-of-jail cards in their previous home wins over Montauban and Clermont, when it appeared a golden generation was clinging on by a thread.

Nor have their performances of late been particularly convincing, with the sheer scale of the defeat to Ulster unceremoniously ending a 12-year unbeaten run against fellow Irish teams in their Limerick fortress.

Against all of that, history has consistently shown us that not even Munster are immune from defeats or tricky spells every season, but more pertinently, no team learns more from them and rebounds the better for it.

There are many examples. The defeats by Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow in a four-game spell before last season’s Heineken Cup final. The shoddy efforts as reigning Euro champions and self-recrimination before beating Leicester at the outset of the Cup two seasons ago; the hammering by Ulster and lack of any match practice before the quarter-final win over Perpignan in ’06 . . . the list goes on.

In fact, the most pertinent was probably the New Year’s Eve 35-23 beating by Leinster at the RDS three seasons ago and the ensuing, unconvincing 18-17 win over Edinburgh prior to the fifth and sixth rounds when the inestimable Stuart Barnes was far from alone in forecasting Munster’s impending Heineken Cup exit at the pool stages.

Following the lack of bonus points in the wins over the Dragons the end was, supposedly, nigh. Whereupon Munster beat Castres and Sale by 46-9 and 31-9, scoring 11 tries in the two games and conceding none, before going on to win reach their Holy Grail for the first time.

Some succour in the defeat to Ulster came by way of Paul O’Connell being hors de combat, while both Ronan O’Gara and Rua Tipoki were gone by half-time; for these are the three leaders who lead Munster into the trenches or plot the advances.

Indeed, the pack are now almost as reliant on O’Connell as the team have generally been on O’Gara’s boot.

In any event, with O’Connell back in the fold, the rest of the pack followed in a restorative win over the Ospreys. There was even a hint of returning to basics, and rediscovering much of the setpiece authority that has, at times, deserted them this season. That victory and the nature of it – never mind the Ospreys pack were not at full strength – changes tonight’s landscape completely. Even Munster needed a shot in the arm, for taking the Connacht and Ulster defeats into Europe would have been demoralising.

Furthermore, both O’Gara and Paul Warwick have been passed fit, meaning Warwick can slot in at fullback – where he was outstanding at Edgeley Park – with Keith Earls moving to the centre in an otherwise unchanged team.

No teams go through seasons unbeaten or even without noticeable hiccups or dips in form. The Heineken Cup’s staggered pool format over a four-month period can make formlines even more unpredictable, all the more so in this particularly volatile pool.

It says everything about Pool One that the bottom placed club, Montauban, came within two narrow defeats of actually leading the group at this stage and they remain the only last-placed side who can, mathematically, still win the group – though judging by their selection to play Clermont it’s not something that has particularly exercised their minds.

In any event, the fact Munster have already beaten Sale at Edgeley Park doesn’t count for much now for to take another formline – say their respective efforts away to Clermont or at home to Montauban – the Sharks would be 23- or 28-point favourites.

What’s more, since that October meeting, Sale have gradually found more consistent form, to the extent they are now in the Premiership top four and scoring tries more freely. Meantime, that win in Manchester was undoubtedly Munster’s best performance of the season (by their first team at any rate) and constituted a peak of sorts following an uninterrupted pre-season and seven-match winning streak, since when they have struggled to rediscover that momentum.

Tony McGahan undoubtedly has a point when stating that Thomond Park’s redevelopment into such an eye-catching 26,000-seat stadium has actually made it a more attractive and inspiring venue for visiting teams. Indeed, one imagines the Sale players who lost at Thomond Park three seasons ago and return there this evening will find it an altogether preferable venue – and perhaps even less hostile as well.

Sale are an all-embracing side, with huge running threats in the likes of Luke McAllister and Mark Cueto, but their starting point in any game is the physical confrontation and seeking to dominate sides up front through the power game of Sebastien Chabal and company. The rumblers keep it simple until the backs probe around the blindside or unleash McAllister up the middle.

It’s the Munster template too and the home side should be well primed, whereas Sale’s defeat in Montauban again questioned whether they have enough good travellers in their ranks.

For Munster, fear is a motivating factor because they don’t want to be the ones that let anyone down. At the same time, they don’t want to heap the pressure on themselves, and so while that fear and pressure will have been a motivating tool to train well all week, come tonight and come the inevitable match-defining moments, or moments of crisis, they retain the trust in each other and knowledge of what they do well to make the right calls.

Fear to inspire them then, but cool heads to deliver.

MUNSTER:P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell [capt], A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy. Replacements: D Fogarty, F Pucciariello, D Ryan, N Ronan, P Stringer, B Murphy, D Hurley.

SALE SHARKS: M Cueto; C Bell, A Tuilagi, L McAlister, D Doherty; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; L Faure, M Jones, E Lewis-Roberts, S Chabal, D Schofield, C Jones, N Briggs, J Fernandez, Lobbe (capt). Replacements: S Turner, A Sheridan, B Cockbain, C Fearns, D Peel, R Keil, M Tait.

Referee:Nigel Owens (Wales)

Previous meetings:(05-06) Sale 27 Munster 13; Munster 31 Sale 9; (08-09) Sale 16 Munster 24.

Results so far: Munster - 19-17 v Montauban (h); 24-16 v Sale (a); 19-25 v Clermont (a); 23-13 v Clermont (h). Sale Sharks - 32-15 v Clermont (a); 16-24 v Munster (h); 36-6 v Montauban (h); 12-16 v Montauban (a).

Leading try scorers:Munster – Marcus Horan, David Wallace 2 each. Sale – Juan Fernandez Lobbe 2.

Leading points scorers: Munster – Ronan O’Gara 47. Sale – Luke McAlister 28.

Odds (Paddy Powers):1/3 Munster, 25/1 Draw, 9/4 Sale. Handicap betting (= Sale +8pts) 10/11 Munster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Sale.

Forecast:Munster to win.