Conor Heffernan previews Munster maiden European Rugby Champions Cup game this weekend against Sale Sharks.
The time has finally come for the opening weekend of the inaugural European Rugby Champion Cup. The tournament formerly known as the Heineken Cup, has been the subject of much talk in the media but thankfully debates about whether or not British and French sides were justified in restructuring the tournament can finally be put to rest. Less talk, more action. It’s time to play rugby.
For fans of Munster Rugby an opening match away against Sale Sharks is a blessing in a group containing the likes of Saracens and Clermont Auvergne. Munster come into the game off the back of a hard fought 17-6 victory over Scarlets, while Sharks are hoping to bounce back from a crushing 43-10 defeat to Northampton.
Fans of Sale Rugby are nervous and have every right to be. So poor were Sale last weekend against the Saints that head coach Steve Diamond refused to speak to the press having seen his side utterly humiliated over 80 minutes. A game that initially saw Sale with plenty of the ball descended into a pummeling for Diamond’s side.
Sale were overpowered in the maul, outmaneuvered in the scrum and sloppy at the breakdown. Samu Manoa did well to earn a hat-trick for the Saints. Make no mistake however though, Northampton didn’t strong arm the Sharks into defeat. Bullying by the Saints’ pack was combined with passing rugby in the backline, which makes it all the more worrying for Steve Diamond.
His team are looking vulnerable from every angle. In England’s Premiership only bottom side London Welsh have conceded more points and more tries than Sharks. It’s not the form you want going into a match against Munster.
Contrast Sale’s performance and recent form with that of Munster. A hard-fought victory over Leinster has been followed up with victory over Scarlets. The Scarlets match is everything Munster could have asked for as a warm up for this Saturday. A scrappy first half against Scarlets forced Munster to dig deep as they came from behind to secure the game.
Reliant on the boot of JJ Hanrahan, Munster looked to the 22-year-old fly half for guidance as he helped drag the province to victory with 12 points. Fears that Munster would be complacent against Scarlets following their 34-23 victory over Leinster in the Aviva proved to be misguided. Munster approached the game with an intensity Scarlets appeared unable or unwilling to match.
Knock ons, rushed decisions and silly mistakes plagued the Scarlet performance in Thomond Park. Munster controlled the game at times, and although it wasn’t one for the rugby purists amongst us, a win’s a win.
Sale Sharks are no Scarlets. Should Munster bring the same intensity into the match this Saturday against Sale, it’s likely we’ll see the Sharks crumble. Steve Diamond will spend this week trying to instil a much-needed meanness into his pack and deal with the weaknesses of the Sale defence. Anthony Foley just needs Munster to keep it business as usual.
It’s hard to see anything other than a Munster win in this match. Sale may be playing at home but Munster are built for European Rugby. The biggest surprise from this game will be if Munster don’t secure the bonus point.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.