Munster on the cusp of a complete performance

If Van Graan’s side deliver, Thomond will again seem an imposing fortress to Gloucester

Tommy O’Donnell: will don  the number seven jersey for the game against Gloucester at Thomond Park. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Tommy O’Donnell: will don the number seven jersey for the game against Gloucester at Thomond Park. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2: Munster v Gloucester

Kick off: Saturday, 1pm. Venue: Thomond Park. How to follow: Live on Virgin Media, Channel 4 and BT Sport and The Irish Times liveblog.

Enshrined in the folklore of the Heineken Champions Cup, the ‘Miracle Match’ as it is affectionately known in these parts will always receive an airing when the two clubs meet in the tournament.

It’s manna for the media but its relevance to the latest encounter is negligible other than offering a reminder or a warning of the charmingly unpredictable nature of professional sport from time to time.

Even a meeting of more recent vintage in which Munster prevailed five years ago – coincidentally at the same stage of the competition – shows just one surviving starter in each of today’s run-on teams.

Gloucester number eight, Ben Morgan, recalled to the England squad this week, filled that role in October 2013 while Munster captain Peter O’Mahony wore the same number that day. The English club have no other survivors from that defeat but not so Munster; Dave Kilcoyne was the starting loosehead prop, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, CJ Stander and JJ Hanrahan were among the replacements.

There are other ties that bind the two clubs, one of which is the return to Thomond Park of Gerbrandt Grobler, who last season wore the red of Munster.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, given that he was Gloucester’s primary lineout option, winning seven and stealing one in the victory over Castres Olympique, he is among the replacements – Ed Slater comes in – one of two changes to that team.

The other change is enforced, Charlie Sharples’ injury rules him out and he is replaced by the 6ft 6in former English international Matt Banahan; broadsword replacing rapier.

Gloucester’s Johan Ackermann offered a refrain familiar amongst coaches who visit Munster’s Limerick citadel.

“They’ve been very successful in the past in this competition but, on the pitch, we control our own destiny. We have to go out there and give it everything and see where it goes.”

Few, if any make bold pronouncements walking in the gate at Thomond Park.

Ackermann admitted that it was very difficult to get a handle tactically on Munster’s performance in their 10-10 draw in Exeter because of how the strong wind impacted upon the game but he did add: “The one thing they did show is that they can keep hold of the ball, going beyond 25 phases at times, and they are a resilient side.

“To go down to Exeter and keep them at bay shows that they are very strong defensively and it’s going to be a massive challenge.”

White line fever

Munster coach Johann van Graan replaces the front row en masse – hooker Niall Scannell picked up an injury in training during the week – while Tommy O’Donnell is handed the number seven jersey, with Arno Botha among the replacements. Alby Mathewson has recovered from the knee issue he suffered against Leinster and is on the bench.

There was much to admire in the manner in which Munster went about their task in Sandy Park and if they hadn’t been occasionally consumed by white line fever around the ruck close to the Chiefs’ line, might have snaffled a victory that on the balance of play would have been merited.

In those circumstances a slight tweaking in their patterns from the linear, one-out runners, to the wider channels would make Munster so much more difficult to defend against, providing the backline with the ball and space from which they’d inflict damage, given the inherent talent.

They do it further out the pitch but it’s about striking a balance and choosing the right options in the opposition 22.

Munster stole more lineout possession than any other team in the tournament last week led by O’Mahony and the outstanding Tadhg Beirne, while both racked up the turnovers at the breakdown.

But they face a Gloucester side that compiled the best statistics in defence of all 20-teams on the opening weekend, a 95 per cent success-rate. Munster’s patterns should be more nuanced than the French side’s were.  

The English club, with Morgan in the van, with be physical and direct. Danny Cipriani may polarise opinion but what’s not up for debate is that given any latitude he has the capacity to rip asunder any defence.     

Munster appear to be on the cusp of a performance that addresses and rectifies small imperfections and, if that is the case, then Gloucester will bear the brunt; it’s a feeling some cherry and white supporters know only too well.

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, D Goggin, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; J Carbery, D Williams; J Cronin, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: K O’Byrne, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, B Holland, A Botha, A Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, S Arnold.

GLOUCESTER: J Woodward; M Banahan, B Twelvetrees, M Atkinson, T Marshall; D Cipriani, C Braley; J Hohneck, F Marais, F Balmain; T Savage, E Slater (capt); F Clarke, J Polledri, B Morgan.

Replacements: H Walker, V Rapava Ruskin, C Knight, G Grobler, G Evans, B Vellacott, O Williams, T Hudson.

Referee: A Ruiz (France)

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