Munster aim for perfect start to Champions Cup in Sale
Anthony Foley’s side looking to replicate form shown against Leinster at Aviva
Munster’s CJ Stander in Pro12 action against Scarlets at Thomond Park, Limerick. Photograph: Inpho
Pool One: Sale Sharks v Munster
AJ Bell Stadium, Saturday 1pm, Sky Sports 2
Anthony Foley is a strong enough character not to feel suffocated by the cloying pressure of expectation, no matter how unreasonable it might appear. He implicitly understands the truism that when European competition beckons, Munster generally shed the skin of any indifferent form. They become energised by the tournament.
In Europe, Munster are not defined by words, especially other peoples, but rather by deeds. There is cussedness to the way they defy convention. It doesn’t matter where they are positioned in the pre-tournament pecking order. They aren’t troubled by such trifles because the focus is traditionally inward, rarely distracted by outside conjecture.
In essence that’s what today’s opening match in the new European Rugby Champions Cup centres on; Munster’s ability to impose their patterns on the Sale Sharks. The high watermark in conception and execution was the victory over Leinster at the Aviva stadium. Munster were pitch perfect, the late indiscipline notwithstanding.
Foley would dearly love his players to replicate the characteristics of that win, the gain-line superiority in the physical collisions, the speed of ruck ball in attack and the facility to slow down that of their opponents, clever game management, the ability to expose the pressure points and the ruthlessness to keep squeezing them.
The focal point will be the pack but the effectiveness of the centre combination of Andrew Smith and Denis Hurley will have a huge bearing on the nature of the contest. They’re big and strong and against Leinster they ran intelligent lines that picked out weak shoulders.
CJ Stander has been his team’s outstanding player so far this season in all facets of the game but particularly in breaching the first line of defence. Munster have plenty of willing ball carriers, even without the athletic Robin Copeland, who starts on the bench. Peter O’Mahony might be lacking a little match sharpness but that won’t have diluted his application or competitive streak.
Foley has put his trust in Stephen Archer to lock the scrum at tighthead, in preference to BJ Botha, so too Dave Kilcoyne on the other side of the frontrow, and will demand that Munster’s set-piece play is of a traditionally high standard. Duncan Casey and Paul O’Connell have demonstrated reasonable telepathy. The revelation that Damien Varley requires foot surgery means that Argentine hooker Eusebio Guinazu is named among the replacements.
Dave Foley will make Ireland’s squad for the November test series on the merit of his performances this season. He’s been consistently excellent. Conor Murray and Ian Keatley are mainstays in any collective decision-making process. Both must kick judiciously, distribute intelligently and offer variety to the points of attack.
Brian Walsh is trying to introduce more nuance and subtlety to Munster’s back play. It lacks real cutting-edge definition for the time being but in Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo it possesses players whose qualities are far from orthodox, while Felix Jones is the epitome of honesty.
And what of Sale Sharks? They’ve won two of six matches, both at today’s venue. The more notable was a victory over Wasps as their other victims, London Welsh, have been conceding about a half century of points per game.
They’ve been less effective on the road – the Gloucester game aside, in which they managed to pick up a losing bonus point – spanked by both Saracens and Northampton Saints. Former Munster player Sam Tuitupou returns for this first game this season following ankle surgery. A focal point of interest has been the performances of former England outhalf Danny Cipriani; the British press like what they’ve seen so far this season.
The home side rely on the sum of the collective rather than eye-catching individual talent. They’ll be chipper at the start but that initial adrenaline rush quickly subsides unless it’s supplemented by obvious reward.
Munster know the importance of a victory in Manchester, not just in the context of the match points but in those less tangible, though arguably more important, qualities like momentum and confidence.
SALE SHARKS: M Haley; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou, T Arscott; D Cipriani, C Cusiter; E Lewis Roberts, M Jones, V Cobilas; J Mills, M Paterson; M Lund, D Seymour (capt), M Easter. Replacements: S Mamukashvili, R Harrison, A de Marchi, A Ostrikov, J Beaumont, W Cliff, J Ford, M Jennings.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Casey, S Archer; D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: E Guinazu, J Cronin, BJ Botha, B Holland, R Copeland, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, G van den Heever.
Referee: M Raynal (France).
Form-guide: Sale - L W L. Munster - L W W .
Previous Meetings: (HC 2005-2006) - Sale Sharks 27 Munster 15; Munster 31 Sale Sharks 9. (HC 2008-2009) - Sale Sharks 16 Munster 24; Munster 37 Sale Sharks 14.
Just the ticket: Tickets available at ground, priced €20 (Juvenile) to €35 (Adult). There are concessions for OAPs and students too.
Odds: Sale 7/4, draw 20-1, Munster 4/9. Handicap: Sale (+5) 10/11, draw 22/1, Munster (-5) 10/11.
Verdict: Munster to win.