Munster will arrive in Durban in familiar, backs-against-the-wall fashion

Graham Rowntree has no doubt that they will require their best performance of the season next Saturday

A Munster squad of 28 players and management jetted out from Dublin to Durban on Tuesday, where they will arrive on Wednesday evening, for a unique Champions Cup challenge, albeit in familiar, backs-against-the-wall fashion.

Coming on the back of last Saturday’s hugely disappointing 38-26 loss to Glasgow at Thomond Park, Munster are in classic underdog mode against a Sharks side splattered with World Cup-winning Springboks, but buoyed by the return of Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, as well as the fit-again Niall Scannell and Antoine Frisch.

Munster have risen to the challenge before this season, notably when recovering from an early Toulouse onslaught in the group stages last January before losing 20-16.

Graham Rowntree has no doubt that they will require their best performance of the season at Kings Park in Durban next Saturday (12.30pm Irish time/1.30pm local) if they are to progress to the quarterfinals a week later, the prize for which would most likely be another trek to Toulouse, or a home tie against the Bulls.


“I’d say so. Yes, I’d say so. I mean, that was a real challenge, that was like a Test match that game away in Toulouse. Could’ve, should’ve won it. So, it’s going to need a similar performance or a better performance this week. That’s what we are aiming for.”

The Sharks will possess what Rowntree describes as “a monster pack”, and pace on the edges. Specifically therefore, he said Munster would need to “get our game going, look after the ball closer to their line, be better in the collisions than we were last week and respect their power game.

“As I keep saying, you play these big packs, I don’t want to be defending mauls all day. It takes it out of you. Our scrum and our maul has got to be spot on, as I thought it was in Toulouse in January over there. So, all those aspects, we have to respect.”

Rowntree still looked more than a little shocked after the full-time whistle last Saturday by the meekness of Munster’s first-half display, at the end of which they trailed 28-0.

“It wasn’t in my plan going forward. It wasn’t in my plan Saturday morning, if I’m honest with you. We didn’t see it coming and occasions like that, you’ve got to deal with it well because we didn’t see it coming either and we were a bit rocked by it at half-time. But we evened things up, got back on an even-keel at half-time, and got our game going.”

The squad went through a long, painful but honest review on Monday, and Rowntree is utterly sure his team will have a positive reaction next Saturday.

“We have to learn from it. The guys were very honest yesterday, we had a very honest review. As I say, the pictures and the video are undeniable. No, I would say it will only help us in the long run. It has to.”

While Durban is at least at sea level, in addition to the long-haul flights and arriving just over three days before the game, Munster will also have to cope with the heat, in the mid-20s, and humidity in the mid- 70s.

Munster have been communicating with the other three Irish provinces – Leinster and Connacht having lost in Durban narrowly last April, while Ulster won there five weeks ago – as well as factoring in preparation for next Saturday’s game in recent weeks.

“We have certainly been doing a bit of heat training in the background here, quietly topping that up. Last year, the big issue was altitude, which is terrible if you’re not used to it, but we got used to that quickly,” said Rowntree in reference to their back-to-back games against the Bulls and the Lions in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

“I’d like to think our fitness and the way we are moving in training will really help us this time out. But we have done some heat training. A big part of it is just getting on it with, try and ignore those factors, just get on with our game.”

Hence Rowntree took a leaf out of the Andy Farrell in seeking to embrace the adversity.

“You’ve got to get on with it. That is sport, travelling, and what an experience for the lads to go and play in; different continents, playing against teams who play in different competitions. It’s part of sport. These are the memories you look back on. As a player I certainly did.”

To that end, Rowntree even showed some of his front-rowers clips from the 2001 final when he was part of the Leicester pack which beat Stade Francais.

“Ridiculous scrummaging. And some ridiculous cheating from me as well. And they enjoyed that. But as I pointed out to them, I said: ‘More scrums stayed up that day’. But no, special memories, and we were cheaper. Special memories from a sport playing in huge European competitions.”

Rowntree had no idea of what size crowd might attend this last-16 tie in Durban, but said: “I’ll be amazed if there’s not a lot of travelling Munster fans there, if there’s not a sea of red somewhere. There usually is. They follow us everywhere. Our fans are incredible.

“It’s a brilliant occasion and the lads are lucky, they’re lucky, to go and play in places like this in this competition. What a challenge, but what a memory it will be, and the club is built on this. It’s a special competition for us. It’s the next game. What happened last Saturday is going to drive us on even more.”

Munster travelling squad

Forwards: Dave Kilcoyne, Josh Wycherley; Diarmuid Barron, Scott Buckley, Niall Scannell; Stephen Archer, Keynan Knox, Roman Salanoa; Jean Kleyn, RG Snyman, Fineen Wycherley; Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony.

Backs: Craig Casey, Conor Murray, Paddy Patterson; Joey Carbery, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy; Malakai Fekitoa, Antoine Frisch; Shane Daly, Mike Haley, Calvin Nash, Simon Zebo.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times