A Heineken Cup weekend with three Irish teams in action is normally an evocative affair. Last weekend was no different. My mood went from joy, to bitterness followed quickly on Sunday by shock and disappointment.
Watching Munster brought on a wave of happiness that very quickly turned sour after Jared Payne had cruelly been shown a red card leaving an excellent Ulster display to ultimately come up short. And then watching Leinster and being optimistic they could get a result against the reigning Champions, I was left awfully disappointed at how terrible they played. Their defence, passing and discipline were all awful last Sunday and they are three things Matt O’ Connor’s side are normally so good at.
Now, attention must turn to the men from Thomond as they go in search of a final berth. Their quarter-final victory over Toulouse was by far and away their best performance of the season and I would go as far to say that it was their best performance of the Rob Penny era.
The fact that Munster pulled such a superb performance out of the bag is hardly surprising but it does give us a massive reason for optimism looking toward the semi-final.
The cynics in the country will feel Munster haven’t got a prayer. They must travel to the south of France, to play Toulon, the Champions of Europe, a team with an embarrassing amount of talent at their disposal with the likes of Johnny Wilkinson, Mathieu Bastareaud, Carl Hayman, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha and Delon and Steffon Armitage to call upon. A team that dismantled a Leinster side with a host of 6 Nations winners in its ranks.
But looking at the Toulouse game, Toulon should be nervous. Munster played very near to perfect. At the break down they cleaned out every ruck with aggression and speed which allowed Conor Murray to move the ball quickly and this put Toulouse on the back foot. Munster’s way may not have been filled with the fancy footwork that Toulouse or Toulon can offer, but it did breed a score line of 47-23 to the men in red.
Keith Earls and Simon Zebo bought played important parts and put their hand up to Joe Schmidt. The Ireland boss wants his wingers to work hard and be able to defend and ruck as well scoring tries. Both Earls and Zebo did so, with Earls hitting rucks hard and Zebo showing he has indeed been working on his defensive abilities. The ERC stats show Munster won 100% of their rucks showing no one shied away from that particular duty.
And when captain Peter O’ Mahony was forced off early on, it was feared the damage Munster could do at the break down would be hindered. Yet CJ Stander emerged from the bench to put in a man of the match performance and he emulated the intensity that O’ Mahony brings to a game.
The lineout and maul are once again Munster’s strongest weapon. With both working so well, they now have a realistic chance of going on to lift the Heineken Cup. Against Toulouse, Munster mauled exceptionally well which meant every time Munster had a lineout inside their opponents half, it gave the back line an excellent platform to launch an attack. Munster had an excellent 83.3% of lineouts won. Defensively the lineout was also outstanding. O’ Mahony set the tone by stealing the opening lineout which was one of four they won on a Toulouse throw in.
Scrum times were also rewarding for Munster. Despite having a lighter pack by far, they managed to keep 100% record on their own scrums and even stole one against the head. All this skill at the set piece will be needed in the battle against Toulon.
I freely admit, playing Toulon in France will be a tougher challenge entirely, and they did destroy Leinster even with all their 6 Nations Champions. But let’s not forget, Munster have a team full of Irish players looking to prove a point to Joe Schmidt that they are good enough to be in the squad. Dave Kilcoyne, Tommy O’ Donnell, Earls and Zebo are all eager to prove they should be have been included in the 6 Nations and that motivation can make them all very dangerous opponents.
One glaring advantage that Munster will have over Toulon going on the basis of the quarter-finals is the clinical edge. Almost every time Munster went into the opposition half, they scored points and crossed the whitewash six times. Toulon on the other hand were incredibly wasteful in the Leinster 22, with knock-on’s and poor passing ripe.
As Munster prepare to for their semi-final date in the Stade Vélodrome they can be certain they will have the support of all the Irish. With the Red Army almost certain to travel in their masses, the thought of Munster conquering the current champions is one very fine reason to be cheerful. After all, to the brave and the faithful, nothing is impossible.
And if any team can go to France and cause an upset, it will be Munster.
Pundit Arena, Steve Neville.