Colm Kinsella wonders can Munster get their Heineken Cup season back on track against Edinburgh this weekend after losing to Racing Metro last Saturday
IN PREVIOUS seasons when Munster claimed a losing bonus point in their opening away fixture against French opposition in the Heineken Cup, it was generally regarded as a satisfactory outcome. But not this time round.
A frustrated Munster side now face a ‘must win’ Pool 1 clash with Edinburgh at Thomond Park this Sunday lunchtime following their bitterly disappointing opening weekend defeat to Racing Metro in Paris.
Saracens’ highly impressive bonus point victory away to Edinburgh has laid down the gauntlet to Munster and removed any further margin for error.
It seems inconceivable to think that Munster could be eliminated from Europe’s premier club rugby competition before all the autumn leaves have been blown off the trees!
Munster’s inability to close out Saturday’s game with Racing Metro will have alarmed many of the province’s supporters.
Munster have been past masters at protecting narrow leads through the tense, final minutes of key European fixtures over the years, but the side’s inexperience told late on.
The majority of the Munster players learned their trade playing crunch Cup games in wet and slippery conditions at schools and club level. Adopting the proper tactics over those closing minutes should have come as second nature in Paris on Saturday.
Team leaders Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell had departed the scene by the time Munster regained a narrow lead through Simon Zebo’s terrific individual try.
However, some individual errors over the closing minutes of the game allowed a spirited, if limited, Racing Metro side claim the spoils with two late penalty goals.
How different the outcome of the game would have been had the TMO awarded that first half try to Paul O’Connell?
By the time Munster face Edinburgh in Sunday’s tie at Thomond Park, group rivals Sarries could well have moved nine points clear of the two-time Heineken Cup winners.
A line in a news item on Munster’s official website this week doesn’t give Racing Metro much of a chance of toppling the Aviva Premiership side on Saturday. It read ‘Saracens will almost certainly be on a maximum ten points’ by the time Munster lock horns with Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh 24 hours later.
So Munster are playing catch-up. Many of the fans will be baying for a bonus point this weekend, following Sarries exploits at Murrayfield last weekend.
But Edinburgh - semi-finalists in the competition just last season - are sure to provide stubborn opposition this time round.
Munster will need to be patient to subdue their visitors. Hopefully, the supporters will remain patient too.
A 12-45pm kick-off may not be ideal for players and supporters alike, but the crucial importance of Sunday’s occasion should help crank up the atmosphere a few notches more than one might normally expect for a game beginning at such an early time.
Munster’s record at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup may have been diluted somewhat, but it’s still mighty impressive.
When Ulster recorded a 22-16 quarter-final win last April they became only the second team to beat Munster at the venue in the history of the competition, joining Leicester who won a pool game there in January 2007.
Munster have lost their three most recent fixtures - against the Ospreys, Leinster and Racing Metro - all three of which were away from home.
The optimism which greeted Munster’s results through the early part of the season has been largely eroded away.
Ticket sales this week have been slower than in previous seasons, with Munster’s disappointing run of results in recent weeks as much of a factor as the current economic climate.
Fans in Limerick might have expected to be more enthused about this weekend’s game, as it is by some way, the biggest rugby fixture the city has hosted this season.
Some may be holding onto their money until the visit of Saracens in December, but the reality is that game will be only of academic interest if Edinburgh become the third side to win at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup.
Munster have been adept at putting on a big showing for the home supporters a week on from a defeat on the road in Europe. This weekend is another big test of the players’ resolve.
The return of Paul O’Connell following a five-month lay-out through injury is a major plus for Munster ahead of Sunday’s ‘do-or-die’ Pool 1 fixture.
O’Connell is sure to have benefitted from the outing against Racing Metro last weekend and supporters will be relieved to learn that he showed no ill effects after his comeback. O’Connell will regain his levels of match fitness over the coming weeks and is sure to become more influential.
The experience the former Lions captain brings to the Munster engine room will prove invaluable this weekend, especially in the expected absence of Ronan O’Gara from the side due to a hamstring injury.
Edinburgh Rugby back-row Netani Talei insisted this week that the Scottish side will be fully up for the challenge this Sunday despite last weekend’s home drubbing to Sarries. Talei said: “The boys are still on a low at the moment because we didn’t perform to the standard that this club demands. Every single individual involved with Edinburgh Rugby is hurting.
“We need to regroup and recapture that buzz in the team. We need to pick ourselves up and work hard in training this week to improve.”
Sunday will tell a tale.