Munster’s record of grinding out wins in big games a huge asset
Other figures add up to a difficult assignment for the visitors at Murrayfield
Tadhg Beirne: his ability to force turnovers of considerable value for Munster. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
No team left in this season’s tournament can match Munster’s track record of success at the quarter-final stage in European club rugby’s premier competition, the Irish province having accumulated 13 victories in 17 games.
Munster travel to take on Edinburgh on Saturday (12.45), a team that they have beaten in three of their four previous meetings in this tournament, albeit that their only setback came on their last visit to Murrayfield in the 2013-2014 season.
Edinburgh have won 17 of their last 19 home games in European competition, the two defeats came coincidentally at the quarter-final stage – both were in the Challenge Cup – against La Rochelle (2017) and Cardiff Blues (2018), a sequence that Munster would like to extend at the weekend.
In 17 seasons in European club rugby’s elite tournament, the Scottish club have only twice previously reached the last eight, losing to Toulouse (2003-2004) and then beating the same French club at Murrayfield in 2011-2012, before narrowly losing a semi-final to Ulster at the Aviva Stadium.
Edinburgh’s progress to the quarter-finals this season has been hugely impressive, underpinned by winning five of six pool matches, home and away against three-time champions, Toulon and the Newcastle Falcons and beating Montpellier at Murrayfield in round six of the pool stage.
The statistical analysis of their performances in the pool, as illustrated in the graphic, underlines their focus on ball retention and an attacking prowess across a number of the metrics; figures that will be rigorously examined on Saturday lunchtime as they face a Munster side with the best defence in the tournament.
Johann van Graan’s charges have missed on average (17.8) the least tackles per match while their tackle completion percentage (89) also leads the way across the tournament’s 20 teams. Edinburgh (18.5) are Munster’s closest pursuers in terms of fewest missed tackles while the Irish province are in the top three when it comes to turnovers per match (7.5).
In this regard, Tadhg Beirne resembles a one-man cottage industry, with a tournament leading 13, continuing the pre-eminence that he showed when playing with the Scarlets last season.
There are a number of red flags from a Munster perspective with regard to the pool averages, areas in which they will seek to improve.
The Irish province has conceded 10.8 penalties per match (18th) – Edinburgh are fourth (7.3) – so their discipline will have to improve especially as their hosts forced the second highest number of penalties (66) in the pool format and successfully kicked the most (16).
Munster made less breaks (5.7) than any of the other teams in the tournament and this compares with their Scottish hosts (11.0) who are ranked fourth. Edinburgh are ranked fourth in terms of their lineout (90 per cent) while Saturday’s visitors are back in 18th place (79 per cent), despite the fact that Munster captain Peter O’Mahony alone has five steals.
There will be many interesting collisions in an individual context but the tussle between two of the tournament’s premier ball-carriers in Munster number eight, CJ Stander and his Edinburgh counterpart Viliame Mata, is likely to be influential to the outcome.
Only Newcastle’s Gary Graham (99) has made more tackles than Stander, while Ireland’s number eight has carried more often (94) than anyone bar Mata (115). The 27-year-old Fijian is the only player to break the 100 mark and has also hoovered up more metres (394) than any other forward this season.
Darcy Graham announced his arrival in Test rugby as a superb attacking talent in the recent Six Nations Championship tournament, a continuation of both his form as an underage international and also in Europe.
The two Edinburgh wings Graham (12, six matches) and Duhan van der Merwe (10, four matches) have each amassed more than double the number of line breaks than the Munster triumvirate of Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Rory Scannell.
Richard Cockerill’s side are versatile in attack, capable of taking the direct route as they showed in snatches during a Pro14 victory over Leinster last weekend, and also in moving the ball into the wider channels.
Blair Kinghorn’s season-ending injury is a blow in the latter regard but the return to fitness of Hamish Watson during the tail end of the Six Nations and John Barclay’s first match last weekend following a long-standing injury provides Edinburgh with an embarrassment of riches in the back row.
Perhaps the most pertinent figure based on historical evidence is that Munster, better than any other team, understand how to win these pivotal playoff matches and that is the most persuasive metric of all.