MENTION to Anthony Foley that Saturday’s glamour European Champions Cup tie with Leicester Tigers could well prove season-defining for the province and he quickly points to the home defeat to Clermont Auvergne in the first of the back-to-back fixtures 12 months ago.
Then Clermont became the first French side to win at Thomond Park in Europe and although the loss came in round three of six, it pretty much ended Munster’s hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the competition.
Defeat for Munster on Saturday - with a return leg to come against Leicester at Welford Road eight days later - will leave the odds stacked against Munster making the last eight of Europe’s premier club rugby competition.
Foley said: “Look, the same game last year was against Clermont at home and we lost that and when we got to round six that was the game that cost us getting out of our group.
“Obviously this is only our second game in Europe, but it’s still round three and the first of our two head to heads and it’s important that we focus on this game and make sure that we drive our standards. You know, 7:45 on a Saturday evening in Thomond Park is normally a very good time to play a game.”
Foley is adamant that Munster have the characters in their squad to bounce back from their disappointing successive Pro12 defeats to Connacht and the Dragons. Foley said: “I would like to think so. Today (Tuesday) at training was a good day. There was not a lot of talking done. Talking was done beforehand.
“Players and coaches understand what we need to do this week. After the Treviso game, confidence was really high, we were looking at Stade Francais. That game got called off.
“We are left with the viewpoint, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Hindsight now says it was a bad thing. At the time, in a 13-week run of games, this comes in the middle of it, so it didn’t seem a bad thing.
“We have come off that, and the first 40 minutes against Connacht was the worst I have ever seen us. We couldn’t get the ball, we couldn’t keep it. The second half we flipped it around.
“Could we have won the game? We put ourselves in a position to win the game. We didn’t. At the weekend against Dragons, we made some changes. We had two fellas ill, another three were injured. Ian Keatley and CJ had played every game. You can’t play every game. I know that. It is important we look after these players.
“We were 6-6, then it goes to 9-6, they are attacking, Simon goes for an intercept, doesn’t get it, they score and that is the game. The one thing in the game is that we butchered opportunities.
“There were the two obvious ones but there were another two - catch, pass, dropping balls, intercepts, that cost us. What I am trying to say is we are not a million miles away but then again another side of me, is thinking, earlier on the year, against Zebre, we were winning games late on. One or two things went our way.
“This could be just things balancing itself out. But where we need to get to for the weekend, we need to get our priority right. If we have the ball, we need to use it. How we protect it. We need to get that right.”
Foley is acutely aware of the challenge Leicester will provide on Saturday.
“They do have a lot of strings to their bow. They have a huge pack, that will scrummage you, will win their line out, will maul you if you allow them. And Youngs at half back is good, Williams, Bell, they put the forwards around the pitch but when they get the ball, they can go through the middle of you.
“If they want to play with width, they can do that too. They have a back three that can cut anyone open. It is important for us to make sure we look after our ball and play in the right areas of the pitch which we haven’t done in the last couple of weeks.”
Saturday’s game will be refereed by French official Romain Poite. Munster travel to Welford Road for the return game in round four of the competition on Sunday, December 20, 5.15pm. Both the round three and round four fixtures will be televised live on BT Sport.
Munster were installed as unbackable 4/11 favourites to win Saturday’s game at the start of the week. However, that price eased through 4/9 and out to 8/13. Leicester are 6/4 shots to prevail.