Gerry Thornley: Munster can dispatch Stade Francais
Anthony Foley’s outfit head to Paris needing win to keep Champions Cup dream alive
The return of Conor Murray is a major boost for Munster as they travel to Paris on Saturday. Photograph: Inpho
Whatever about defining their season, there’s little doubt that Munster’s re-arranged meeting with Stade Francais in Paris today will go some way to deciding their fate in Europe this season. A defeat will extinguish their hopes. A win, with games to come at home to Stade and away to Treviso, would give them a real shot.
Although Stade have been inconsistent this season, facing the French champions in their own state-of-the-art home ground is a daunting enough assignment, but at least this fixture finds Munster in a healthier state, both physically and mentally, than a few short weeks ago.
Having rested and rotated over-worked players or those carrying niggles for their morale-boosting in Ulster last Saturday, Anthony Foley makes six changes from a position of relative strength. The return of Conor Murray is the main boost, but this is augmented by the return of Keith Earls, Dave Foley and Andrew Conway from injury, as well as the rested duo of Simon Zebo and Robin Copeland.
The difference made by an assured presence at out-half in Belfast was enormous, and Ian Keatley’s match-winning performance was a timely boost for his self-confidence as well as testimony to his resilience. That Rory Scannell should retain his place ahead of Denis Hurley also demonstrates how well he has taken his chances in recent weeks, and specifically his ability to break the gain line with his footwork.
Furthermore, the return in the last two games of Tommy O’Donnell, who has resumed from where his season was so cruelly brought to a halt near the end of the first warm-up game when in the shape of his life, gives the backrow much better balance – an excellent defender, another poacher in tandem with CJ Stander and, in his less robust but pacier way, a potentially very dynamic one.
Against that, of course, James Cronin and Donnacha Ryan would have been handy tight five Munster dogs for a battle such as this, especially given last week’s lineout wobbles.
And then there was the ending of their five-match losing run.
“Fellows are smiling a small bit as opposed to last month,” revealed their coach during the week. “We are still very hard on ourselves, as we would have seen from the weekend, there is still stuff to work on in our game and then when you watch Stade and Toulouse and you understand where you are going and the environment and the intensity and the physicality, there is stuff that we did in Ravenhill that we are not going to get away with over there.”
Stade have made nine changes, and although inching their way back up the Top 14 table is probably key to the future of head coach Gonzalo Quesada, any selection fearturing Sergio Parisse is still s strong one. Will Genia has struggled to settle at scrum-half, and it comes as no surprise that the hugely influential and long-serving Julien Dupuy is restored after returning from injury to the bench last weekend.
The selection of Morne Steyn suggests Stade are going to kick plenty,and with a six-day turnaround from their somewhat fortuitous late one-point win over Toulouse last Sunday, Quesada was always going to rotate his squad. Even so, the presence of Heinke Van der Merwe, Rabah Slimani, Jonathan Ross, Jules Plisson and Jonathan Danty amongst their replacements would appear, frankly, to give Stade a stronger-looking bench.
“It’s just an away match at the moment, we’re not even looking at the following week,” said Foley, underlining how Munster’s Euro campaign is at the point of no return. “We understand the maths of it and all that; we need to get our job done this weekend. It’ll be two sides going at it hard, they’re the French champions and we need to respect that.
We do, as a group, respect that and we’re going to their back garden and we need to play.”
Encouragingly, both of the French-based duo of Ronan O’Gara and Bernard Jackman believe Munster have a very good chance of winning given Stade’s apparent hangover to last season’s success.
Yet their semi-final and final victories last June over Toulon and Clermont underlined their big-game mentality. Furthermore, as away to Leicester and given their penchant for not creating space out wide or then not turning over possession in opposition territory, Munster could still play well without converting opportunities into the hard currency of points.
Stade Français Paris: H Bonneval; J Arias, W Vuidarvuwalu, P Williams, J Raisuqe; M Steyn, J Dupuy; Z Taulafo, L Sempéré, PAlo Emile, H Pyle, P Gabrillagues, S Macalou, S Nicolas, S Parisse (c). Replacements: L Panis, H Van der Merwe, R Slimani, G Mostert, J Ross, J Tomas, J Plisson, J Danty.
Munster: A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, R Scannell, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D Foley, M Chisholm, R Copeland, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander (capt). Replacements: N Scannell, J Ryan, M Sagario, B Holland, J O’Donoghue, T O’Leary, D Hurley, R O’Mahony.
Previous meetings: (1999-2000, q/f) Munster 27 Stade Francais 10. (2000-01) Stade Francais 16 Munster 15. (2001-02, q/f) Stade Francais 14 Munster 16. (2003-04) Munster 37 Stade Francais 32.
Results so far: Stade – L 20-33 v Leicester. W 50-17 v Treviso (a). W 40-14 v Treviso (h). Munster – W 32-7 v Treviso (h). L 19-31 v Leicester (h). L 6-17 v Leicester (a).
Leading points scorers – Stade: Jules Plisson, Morne Steyn, Paul Wiliams 15 each. Munster: Ian Keatley 27.
Leading try scorers: Stade: Paul Williams 3. Munster: six players on one each.
Betting (Paddy Power): 4/9 Stade Francais, 16/1 Draw, 15/8 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster +5pts) 10/11 Stade Francais, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Munster.
Forecast: Munster to win.