Munster’s next task is to replicate domestic form in Europe

Pro12 leaders enter crucial period of season with three Champions Cup matches in row

Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell is led off the field at the Sportsground. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell is led off the field at the Sportsground. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Munster’s regenerative season since that tragic October weekend in Paris travels full circle as they return to Stade Yves-du-Manoir this Saturday.

The rescheduled Champions Cup fixture means Rassie Erasmus’s side must play three European matches, two against Racing 92 and the other in Glasgow, over successive weekends but they enter this crucial period with a remarkable nine wins from 10 games.

The most recent win was a somewhat fortuitous 16-9 victory over Connacht at a sodden Sportsground on Saturday night. It came at a cost, however, as Tommy O’Donnell sustained an ankle injury.

“It’s good where we are currently but we’re not stupid, we know what’s coming,” said Erasmus. The 36-times capped Springbok flanker has proved time and again that he is anything but stupid.

The only blot on Munster’s copy these past three months was a late Owen Williams penalty that gave the Leicester Tigers an 18-16 victory at Welford Road. An understandable reversal considering the 38-0 thrashing handed out to the English club in Thomond Park the week before.

All three Irish provinces have been beaten, along with a historic win over the touring All Black Maoris, when O’Donnell was the captain in the absence of the Irish internationals. However, Erasmus is right in acknowledging the task ahead. Despite Racing 92’s terrible form in Europe, losing all three matches so far, they were largely crowned Top 14 champions last season due to their home supremacy.  

And there is the Ronan O’Gara factor to consider.

“You always bite yourself in the arse if you say something stupid here and now, but I just think we have a lot of potential,” was the height of Erasmus’s praise at the end of a harrowing 2016.

Young coach

“I think while we are developing that potential as a group, as coaches we are young coaches. Felix Jones is a young coach; he will make a lot of mistakes as he goes on, the same with Jerry Flannery, the same with myself and the same with the players.”

Still, the Guinness Pro12 table does not lie. Munster are top with 42 points, and a nine-two win-loss ratio, at the midway point of the campaign.

“For me, it’s about trying to maximise our potential as players, management and a coaching team,” Erasmus continued. “I think we’re doing it. I’m not saying at all that we’re going to win the league or definitely be champions, but as long as we can do that week on week we’ll turn into a good unit.”

Connacht, in stark contrast, have experienced a steep decline since Pat Lam announced on December 5th that he would be leaving to coach Bristol next season.

Beating Wasps in round four has kept their prospects of reaching the Champions Cup quarter-finals alive. They are level on 13 points with Wasps and Toulouse, but defeats to Ulster and now Munster leave them eighth in the Pro12 table, 12 points adrift of fourth-placed Ulster.  

Error from the officials contributed on Saturday. When Munster scrumhalf Duncan Williams was yellow-carded in the dying seconds and Dave Kilcoyne came back from the sin-bin, Jack O’Donoghue also returned to the fray to deny Connacht a numerical advantage.

“The fourth official got it wrong at the end, we were playing against 15 men when it was supposed to be 13,” said Lam. “We will leave that to the referee’s report.”

Lam also confirmed that discussions were taking place with the IRFU to bring in short-term injury replacements after listing 25 unavailable players last Friday.

“It’s just a fact that over half the squad is out and the academy boys are on holidays.

Dust ourselves off

“We’ve got to dust ourselves off – it looks like we’ve lost a couple more – and just keep going.

“Hopefully, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel with some injuries soon. We have disruption this week and boys will be heading off to camp, so it is what it is. We’ve got to make the most of what we have.”

Ireland camp in Carton House, until Wednesday, denies every province a chunk of players but it also provides a reminder of how close it is to Ireland’s Six Nations opener in Murrayfield on February 4th.

“I will have a look at the Ireland plays, try and get back into the groove of that,” said Leinster flanker Josh van der Flier following their disjointed 22-7 victory over Ulster at the RDS on Saturday night.

“Then you are back into Leinster and you push the Irish stuff to the back of your mind, as we are back in with Leinster for Zebre. So it will be a strange week alright but it has to be done.” Exciting times.

“Very exciting. It’s massive. Especially leading up to the two European games, everyone wants to be involved so it is going to be incredibly competitive in training, not only with our opposition but among the squad. Everyone will be fighting for places.”

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