Rassie Erasmus tries to keep a lid on rising Munster expectations
Leo Cullen left to lament Leinster’s missing frontliners after heavy defeat at Thomond Park
Leinster players wearing red No 8 shirts in memory of former Munster player and coach Anthony Foley ahead of the Guinness Pro 12 game at Thomond Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Rassie Erasmus maintained that Munster’s bonus point win against Leinster at a packed Thomond Park Monday night was “by no means a performance to win the league”. In which case, Munster have to now be viewed as serious contenders to win the league this season.
Their impassioned and at times very impressive 29-17 win enabled Munster to move five points clear of their rivals, thanks to tries by Simon Zebo, extending his Munster record to 49, Ronan O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander, who scooped yet another Man of the Match award.
That could just as easily have gone to the imperious Conor Murray, who will presumably be rested along with some other front-liners for Saturday’s trek to the Sportsground to face Connacht, while the South African pair Jean Kleyn and Jaco Taute also underlined their value.
Afterwards, Erasmus expressed the hope that Taute’s loan from the Stormers can be extended, while there was also a welcome return to the pitch for Francis Saili.
In the process they ended a three-game losing run against Leinster and by avenging last week’s defeat in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, they not only brought further cheer to their home supporters but made it 11 wins in a row during an unbeaten calendar year at their Limerick citadel. Not only are Munster back, and with an improved squad, but so too is Thomond Park.
Keeping a lid on rising expectations, Erasmus said: “If we can maximise our potential it will be a good season. If we can win more games than we won last year it would be a good season. I really think we are maximising potential but by that I’m not saying we’re playing brilliant rugby and tactically unbelievable rugby.
“I’m not sure that if everyone is on top of their game that we are potentially there already, but we are maximising potential, which for me is positive.“
Acknowledging that the next week, with Connacht away after a five-day turnaround, will further test their squad, Erasmus maintained: “We don’t have a squad that is established, to be able to say that we’ll go all the way without having injuries.”
Given Munster were significantly closer to full tilt than Leinster, who will clearly welcome back some big guns for their home meeting with Ulster on Saturday, it was perhaps no surprise that the home side prevailed.
Ultimately, it was the increasing intensity of their power game, their mauling and hard carrying and recycling, which did the damage, although it needed a virtuoso finish from Zebo to set them on their way.
“I think that’s what you get with Simon. Sometimes he does things that [makes] people want to tear out their hair, but then he scores tries like that you realise that’s why he’s doing it. He can do things like that. You can’t just win games with systems and tactics and plans. Individuals in the system sometimes must just do something special, which he did and which is great. It’s wonderful to have a player like him in the team.”
It will be surprising if Zebo, Murray et al are not now given a rest this week. “It’s tough,” said Erasmus of the five day turnaround. “The next week is Racing which is a seven day turnaround, and we have to manage some of our international players, so it’s going to be a little bit of a juggling act, but it was the same for Pat this weekend, and for Leo [Cullen] and for Les [Kiss]. It’s tough but it’s the same for everybody and it’s the best for Irish rugby.”
By contrast, Cullen is expected to restore most of his front-liners this week after resting them for this match. Nevertheless, he stressed that Leinster’s starting pack featured seven internationals and maintained that the festive derbies were not all destined to be won by the home sides.
“I don’t see it like that though because I genuinely thought that we were coming here with a team that was going to win the game. I couldn’t fault the effort but we left ourselves down with inaccuracies in terms of winning decent possession.
“When you come away to Thomond Park and don’t have decent quality possession, it is going to be bloody hard to win the game. That’s probably the big learning for us – how we manage the game better. As I said there, were seven internationals in that pack and young guys who I really wanted to see how they handled the atmosphere down there as well.
“For the most part of that first half I thought we were well and truly in the game. If we got a bit more quality ball we certainly would make life a hell of a lot easier for ourselves. Then we concede a try right before half-time which knocks a little bit of confidence. Maybe it starts to seep in with guys, when they hear rumblings of the selection etc. It just becomes a bit tougher. You could see a bit of confidence drained out of us. We don’t manage the game especially well at the start of the second-half . . . We are managing selections plus injuries. It’s just a combination that other teams have to deal with as well, it’s a tough place to come at the best of time.”
But he admitted it heightens Leinster’s need to beat Ulster at the RDS now. “Definitely, we want to make sure we put in a big performance in front of our home fans. Ulster have the advantage because they have an eight-day turnaround, we have a five-day turnaround. We need to rest up and I’m sure guys are going to be sore and bruised but we are going to get them in tomorrow to recover. We will try and get them moving as soon as possible because some guys will have to double up again.”