Munster find their hopes of making the knock-out stages of this season’s Heineken Cup already hanging on a knife edge after just one fixture, following their shock 29-23 defeat to Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Rob Penney’s men failed to justify their odds-on tag of 2/9 favourites when slumping to a 29-23 defeat to their Scottish hosts. The defeat leaves Munster with no margin for error - needing to win all five of their remaining pool fixtures in order to maintain their hopes of advancing to the quarter-finals of the competition.
The fixture lists starts with this Saturday’s glamour clash with Gloucester at Thomond Park (6pm).
1. Need for Consistency
On the back of their thrilling victory over Leinster a week earlier, Munster fans could be forgiven for thinking that the trip to Murrayfield amounted to a less daunting task. After all, Munster had won each of their four previous meetings with Edinburgh. But the players seem to have bought into that theory too, producing a flat, lacklustre, error-ridden display.
For Munster to progress as a team, they need to find a higher level of consistency, backing up one big display with another. Saturday’s defeat was not fatal to their hopes of making the quarter-finals, but it leaves no room for error.
2. Faltering Line-out
While Edinburgh boasted a 100% success rate in the line-out, winning eight from eight on their own throw, Munster experienced a disappointing return in this crucial facet of set-piece play.
Munster lost four of the 12 line-outs on their own throw which was a poor return in an area of play which had gone so well against Leinster just a week earlier. A 67% success rate at line-out time, from one of the primary sources of possession, isn’t good enough at Heineken Cup level.
The hooker, lifters and jumpers must shoulder the responsibility when a line-out struggles. It is an aspect of Munster’s play which can be fixed, even in a short space of time. Expect a significant improvement next weekend.
3. Backline Improvement
Munster managed just one line-break during Saturday’s defeat at Murrayfield according to the match stats, compared to four line-breaks by Edinburgh. Munster’s backline was lacking a spark. Winger Keith Earls did look threatening with ball in hand, as did Casey Laulala on occasion. However, Munster’s play lacked the intensity to threaten the Edinburgh defence on a consistent basis. Coach Penney may well consider changes in personnel for Saturday’s clash with the ‘cherry and whites’. Andrew Conway could well come into the side if Simon Zebo is ruled out through injury. Johne Murphy is another player who could come into the selection mix, having impressed in the opening weeks of the season.
4. O’Mahony’s Return
Paddy Butler’s unfortunate thumb injury, which will see him sidelined for between eight and ten weeks, will mean at least one change to Munster’s back row for next weekend’s visit of Gloucester. Team captain Peter O’Mahony is set to return to the side having missed the defeat to Edinburgh after receiving a blow to the head against Leinster. Penney may also be tempted to make another change in the back-row too, with South African CJ Stander pushing hard for selection. Stander brings much-needed bulk and an extra ball-carrying dimension to the side.
5. Fans’ Reaction
Traditionally the visit of an English side to Thomond Park for a Heineken Cup pool match - especially one with a Saturday evening kick-off time - is regarded as the ‘must-see’ fixture of the home pool games. The fact that just over 20,000 attended Munster’s glamour fixture with Leinster just over a week ago raised a few eyebrows, however,
And now, in the wake of Munster’s surprise weekend defeat to Edinburgh, how will fans react? Will is galvanise support among the ‘Red Army’ or will a portion be turned off making the effort to attend?