MUNSTER have been bad of late but there is still reason to believe they can shock Harlequins, writes Limerick Leader rugby correspondent Colm Kinsella.
DESPITE the air of doom and gloom which descended on Munster fans in the wake of their Good Friday drubbing at the hands of Glasgow Warriors in the PRO12, there is still more than a hint of optimism around over Munster’s prospects of bouncing back with a victory against Harlequins in their Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown this Sunday. So what is that optimism based on and should Munster supporters have high expectations for their team this weekend?
Recent form for both clubs has been patchy, with Munster conceding more than 50 points in Glasgow last weekend and English champions Harlequins losing three in a row. But previous form will count for nothing this weekend in a Cup final, winner-take-all, clash.
While Munster will be making a record 14th appearance in the quarter-finals this weekend, Harlequins have never been further than the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club rugby competition before.
Track record, pedigree and history should count for something on Sunday, especially if Munster remain well in the hunt into the closing minutes of the quarter-finals.
Munster might not be as mighty a threat in Europe as they were in an eight-year period when they reached four finals and won the trophy twice but they remain formidable opponents who have the knack of winning on the road.
No other team has won more away Heineken Cup quarter-finals than the Irish province and all the European experience will be in the visitors’ corner.
Tournament points record scorer Ronan O’Gara will line up for his 109th Heineken Cup appearance looking to add to his 1,342 points tally and a fit again Paul O’Connell will be hoping to crown his 67th outing with a win in front of watching British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
Munster boast a decent record against English opposition in the Heineken Cup. The province has won two thirds of their matches against English opposition in the tournament. They have suffered just 13 losses in 38 clashes with English clubs.
The return of the likes of Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan to the Munster fold this weekend will add a degree of much-needed experience and steel to the side. Flanker O’Mahony, has made 70 carries so far in this season’s Heineken Cup - only two other players have made more.
Donnacha Ryan is also expected to return to the matchday squad this weekend. Ryan is an abrasive, dynamic player and the Munster management team faces a decision on whether to play him alongside Paul O’Connell in the second-row or opt to fit him into their back-row.
Either way, a returning Ryan is a major addition to the Munster pack.
O’Connell has made a major impact since his earlier than expected return from injury in the recent Rabo PRO12 victory over Connacht at Musgrave Park.
His presence in the side to face ‘Quins is a major plus for the season-defining tie.
O’Connell who is getting fitter and fitter with every outing is a quality line-out operator and key ball-carrier.
While captain Doug Howlett is a loss, the return of Simon Zebo is a massive boost. He’s a real match-winner and if he gets a chance, he’ll take it.
A province holds its breath.