In their hour of need, Munster can still believe
Pressure is on Van Graan’s men but they have the ability to produce on the day
CJ Stander: his return will boost Munster. In four rounds he has made the most carries (80) of any player in the tournament – and he has the joint highest tackle count of 66. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Racing 92 v Munster, Paris La Defense Arena, Sunday, 4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish - Live on BT Sport
The natives are restless and even some of their ex-teammates are assailing them from all angles over their form of late. They’ve just come off an ignominious beating by one of their domestic rivals and, facing a daunting assignment to keep their Heineken Champions Cup hopes alive, not many still believe.
In other words they’ve backed themselves into a corner again. But if history has taught us anything it is that Munster will come out swinging and produce a big European performance in time-honoured fashion.
The believers will have been encouraged by their team announcement, with JJ Hanrahan having overcome the hamstring injury which forced his withdrawal in the defeat by Leinster and ruled him out of that Ulster loss.
Furthermore, Mike Haley, Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland and CJ Stander also return while, like Haley, Andrew Conway has been passed fit. Yes, Munster have only won two of their last seven matches but effectively this is the core of the side that has lost only one of six this season – a full-on, ultra-competitive game away to Saracens.
As expected, Simon Zebo has been ruled out of another reunion with his former team due to the broken metatarsal he sustained last week at the end of the early 60-metre counter-attack which kick-started their 27-19 win over Clermont.
Surprisingly, despite spooking Munster’s lineout on the last three occasions the sides have met, Donnacha Ryan has again been left on the bench. Munster won’t be sorry to see that.
But Stander and Farrell alone will give Munster’s attacking game some ballast and focal point. In four rounds Stander has made the most carries (80) of any player in the tournament – and he has the joint highest tackle count of 66.
Conway and Earls, who’ll hardly play as badly as he did in last weekend’s rare off-night, will relish this fast track as much as Teddy Thomas and Imhoff, admittedly a pair of world-class finishers with seven tries between them. They have also made the most line breaks, 12 and 11, of any players in the competition.
Collectively, this potent Racing have made the most metres (2,048), breaks (65), offloads (45) and beaten the most defenders (130) in the four rounds, but Munster have missed the fewest tackles (64) and thus have the best tackle ratio in the competition (90%).
The early exchanges will be very informative. As Munster discovered in that semi-final in Bordeaux three seasons ago, Racing have a penchant for blitzing teams early on, and have scored the most tries in the first half, albeit Munster have only conceded two first-half tries. Although nine-point underdogs, the longer they stay with Racing, the more the odds will favour Munster.
Helpfully too, Munster have been here before, literally. All told, 13 of this starting line-up and another three of the match-day squad played in the corresponding fixture two seasons ago amid the bright lights, reverberating din, razzmatazz and concert-like backdrop of Racing’s indoor arena and synthetic surface. Munster left tries behind in that 34-30 defeat too.
Indeed, since moving into the Defense Arena in December 2017, Racing have played 34 matches there and, amid increasing evidence that visiting sides have rather come to enjoy the party too, have won 24, drawn one and lost nine.
They have scored freely, at a rate of 30 points per game, but concede liberally too, at a rate of 22 points per game.
In Europe, they have won six out of seven – their sole defeat being the 22-21 quarter-final loss at home to a Toulouse side reduced to 14 men for almost an hour last season. In these seven encounters they have averaged 36 points per game but, again, have conceded 23 per match.
Missed opportunities late on against Racing and Saracens, so un-Munsterlike, compound concerns about Hanrahan’s hamstring issues and the nagging similarities when their hopes ended at the same juncture in Toulon nine years ago, in Saracens in 2015, and away to Stade Francais a year later.
But this Munster team are primed for a bigger performance than that.
“I get my confidence from the group,” said Peter O’Mahony this week, “from the people around me and knowing what we’re capable of when we play well, when we perform well and our heads are in the right place.”
“That’s always where I get my confidence from, from the guys around me when I take to the pitch, from the training we do during the week and our preparation, and from knowing the guys, what they can do on a rugby pitch and their individual qualities, from knowing who they are and what they’re capable of.”
In their hour of need, Munster can still believe.
RACING 92: Brice Dulin; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy (capt), Juan Imhoff; Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren; Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Ben Tameifuna; Boris Palu, Dominic Bird; Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux, Antonie Claassen.
Replacements: Teddy Baubigny, Hassane Kolingar, Cedate Gomes Sa, Donnacha Ryan, Fabien Sanconnie, Maxime Machenaud, Ben Volavola, Olivier Klemenczak.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (Capt), Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Arno Botha, Chris Cloete, Craig Casey, Dan Goggin, Shane Daly.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Forecast: Munster to win.