Munster’s need and form should help secure home quarter-final
Champions Cup: Munster v Racing 92, Thomond Park, Saturday, 5.30pm – Sky Sports 2
Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell, above in action against Racing 92 at Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Paris, returns at openside while and Peter O’Mahony remains at blindside. Photograph: Inpho
Munster can put the Top 14 champions, along with Ronan O’Gara, out of their European misery this evening.
Some house cleaning: Tommy O’Donnell returns at openside and Peter O’Mahony remains at blindside, having completed the return-to-play protocols arising a head injury, but Keith Earls damaged his ribs so Ronan O’Mahony wears number 11.
In rugby terms, the Parisians have experienced a hellish season both on and off the pitch.
Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko don’t travel so another full house is short changed. No Johann Goosen either but that was established when Racing owner Jacky Lorenzetti initiated legal proceedings against the Springbok outhalf after the 24-year-old prematurely retired from professional rugby to work on a stud farm.
Goosen was voted the Top 14 player of 2015/16 but circumstances have changed drastically since those heady days to show while rugby titles can be purchased, this type of success comes at an unsustainable cost.
For starters, Racing can barely buy a win on the road. There was the dubious cortisone case when Carter, Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff were eventually cleared by an FFR anti-doping hearing. And then Goosen went AWOL.
Last weekend they exploited the Leicester Tigers plummeting confidence levels with a 34-3 victory but they owed their supporters after being pumped by Munster the previous Saturday.
For all their absentees, Racing struggle to field a side devoid of international quality. Teddy Thomas comes in for Rokocoko, Eddy Ben Arous and Ben Tameifuna are two of the most imposing props around while the seemingly Munster bound scrumhalf James Hart provides cover for Maxime Machenaud.
“I have never played a dead rubber in a pool game in my life,” said Ronan O’Gara recently.
The influence of the Cork native on the Racing players really should draw some form of resistance.
Still, Munster’s desire, no, Munster’s overwhelming need, financially and otherwise, to secure a home quarter-final for the first time since 2014, which was the last time they reached the knockout stages, should see them maintain their current exceptional form.
Score early and Racing should start thinking about finding a way into the Top 14 play-offs – they are ninth in the table ¨– ahead of crunch matches against Lyon, Brive and Grenoble. “It’s going to be a new season that starts for us at Lyon,” admitted head coach Laurent Labit.
The impression being that they can soak up one more embarrassing hiding.
“We have not been humble,” said Lorenzetti recently. “When we see the number of matches we’ve played, it’s just not right that they should be tired.”
Munster, in stark contrast, are the most energised side in Europe right now. Okay, the second most behind Leinster.
Last Saturday’s triumph in Glasgow was ground breaking for the current generation. It was reminiscent of those epic wins on the road early in the O’Gara era. They were a score behind until it mattered most with Conor Murray the dominant force despite being targeted to the point where he felt compelled to speak out.
“I don’t see any benefit in charging down someone’s standing leg,” said Murray this week. “I only see it as a danger or as a potential to get injured.”
Murray had the last kick in a reverberating victory.
Now they must back it up against a team littered with quality but lacking motivation. Unless the Racing pack, led by Yannick Nyanga and including the brilliant Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa, do what Munster forwards used to do automatically: they perform for O’Gara.
There remains the risk of a harsh lesson against sleep-walking giants but Rassie Erasmus has rebuilt such an impressive culture that a victory, bonus point not needed, of any sort should be secured before the hour mark.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, J Taute, R Scannell, R O’Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: R Marshall, D Kilcoyne, T Du Toit, B Holland, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, F Saili.
RACING 92: B Dulin; T Thomas, H Chavancy, E Dussartre, M Andreu; B Dambielle, M Machenaud; E Ben Arous, C Chat, B Tameifuna; M Carizza, L Nakarawa; Y Nyanga, M Voisin, S Fa’aso’o.
Replacements: V Lacombe, J Brugnaut, C Gomes Sa, A Williams, C Masoe, J Hart, F Pourteau, A Vulivuli.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).
Forecast: Munster win.