YESTERDAY’S HEINEKEN CUP action has left the waters a little less muddied for Munster, and their scrying will tell them with certainty that a bonus point win against Edinburgh this afternoon will hand them a home quarter-final.
That it looked like a defeat to the same team in round one of the pool stages in Murrayfield would deny Rob Penney’s side the chance to achieve exactly that is ironic in the extreme. While Munster would be foolish to underestimate their opponents at Thomond Park in this decisive encounter, their target is clear, defined and achievable.
Losing would mean taking to the road for the knock-out stages in April to face either Toulouse or Clermont, but that thought will not have occupied Munster minds even for a fleeting second. A win without a try-scoring bonus point would also mean an away trip, although if Clermont were to lose to Racing Métro – that would require the Parisians ending Vern Cotter’s side’s 70-game winning streak at the Stade Marcel Michelin – several possibilities exist.
Each of those require high-margin wins for Munster or Clermont while also scoring three tries, so the scenario of Penney’s men qualifying for a home quarter-final without a try-scoring bonus point is rather unlikely. The chance of a home tie with Leinster remains a possibility, but the permutations are of little interest to Munster right now.
They know that five match-day points will seal the deal, and despite the likelihood that the Kiwi will insist his players focus on the process rather than the target, he will be feeling the nervous tension like every other Munster-tied person in the stadium and watching on TV.
That confirmation of a new one-year contract extension is, in all probability, waiting for Penney in the coming week if his side can hit their target today adds a little extra pressure on the former Canterbury coach. Not that he will be wasting precious brainpower on that issue; he would dearly love to see his developing Munster team deliver their most comprehensive victory of the season in order to confirm that improvement.
The fact that Stephen Archer lines out in the front row is a sign of how Penney wants to move things forward, a mini-succession plan in plain view. The Cork man will be starting his third Heineken Cup game of the season – and his career – but the presence of BJ Botha on the bench is reassuring. Elsewhere in the forward pack, Tommy O’Donnell will be key in ensuring Munster get onto the front foot with regularity.
Penney would be rapt to see Munster run in four tries at Thomond Park. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
Munster found out to their peril in October that Edinburgh cannot be underestimated, with Scottish internationals like Nick de Luca and Greig Laidlaw set to lead their challenge. Blindside flanker Cornell du Preez has been especially effective for them in recent months, so Munster would be well advised to limit the South African’s impact.
After the win in Gloucester last weekend saw the southern province forced to defend for long periods, which they did well, this week is all about their attacking ability. Penney was enthusiastic in praising the team effort that resulted in Keith Earls’ try at Kingsholm, and that is the ideal template again today; direct carrying, powerful leeches through contact, clinical rucking and intelligent decision-making.
Offloads like Paul O’Connell’s one would help too.
Munster have the attacking tools to do the business, if they can be pig-headed in going after tries. It might be thrilling to shift the ball wide through the hands, but if there is a better option to maul over the try-line then so be it. Anthony Foley will have prepared that aspect of the game well.
With the likes of Simon Zebo, JJ Hanrahan, James Cronin, Botha and Donncha O’Callaghan to spring from the bench, Penney does have the option of sending on guaranteed energy if all is not proceeding to plan. This is a true test of how far Munster have come under the New Zealander. They have been given their target, now they must take their chances.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer, D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony (c), T O’Donnell, J Coughlan.
Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo.
Edinburgh Rugby: J Cuthbert; D Fife, N De Luca, B Atiga, T Brown; G Tonks, G Laidlaw (c); A Dickinson, R Ford, W Nel, G Gilchrist, I Van Der Westhuizen; C Du Preez, R Grant, D Denton.
Replacements: A Lutui, L Blaauw, G Cross, O Atkins, T Leonardi, G Hart, C Bezuidenhout, J Dominguez.
Munster’s clash with Edinburgh kicks off at 12.45 this afternoon at Thomond Park. Englishman Wayne Barnes will referee the clash, flanked by compatriots Tim Wigglesworth and Roy Maybank. Ireland’s Barrie O’Connell is the fourth official, with Sean Davey of the RFU on TMO duties. Yves Thieffine of France is the citing commissioner.