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Munster braced for Tigers backlash in the latest instalment of Europe's pre-eminent rivalry

Leicester have never lost both games in a European back-to-back encounter, and they will be seeking revenge when the two teams meet again at Welford Road this evening.

Munster can take a huge step towards the quarter-finals if they can maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign later.
Munster can take a huge step towards the quarter-finals if they can maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign later.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

HERE WE GO again.

A rivalry as fierce and storied as any in this competition is set for its latest instalment as Munster seek to do what no other team has done and inflict back-to-back European defeats on Leicester Tigers at this juncture of the pool stages and, in the process, tighten their grip on this stacked pool.

In the 18 seasons since this December double-header was introduced, Leicester have six times managed to bounce back from defeat in the first-leg, including last year when they gained revenge for the 38-0 defeat at Thomond Park with a narrow win at Welford Road seven days later.

Similarly, the Tigers — two-time champions of Europe — are a wounded animal ahead of this evening’s Pool 4 clash [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport 2] and have entered must-win territory on the back of last week’s humbling in Limerick. Anything less would prove fatal.

To that end, Munster are expecting a backlash with Matt O’Connor, the Leicester head coach, fuelling the fire further with his post-match accusations last week and his insistence that the province were allowed get away with many illegalities at the breakdown.

Writing in his weekly column for The Leicester Mercury, O’Connor placed further pressure on this week’s referee, Mathieu Raynal, by saying: “Comments from pundits and the press that we failed to adapt to the French referee have been tough to take. My view is that the laws of the game are the laws of the game. There should be no room for interpretation from any official, or any need for teams to adapt to the way a game is being refereed in the technical parts of the game.

“Not rolling away is not rolling away. Not releasing the tackled ball carrier is not releasing the tackled ball carrier. Putting your hands in front of the ball at the breakdown is putting your hands in front of the ball at the breakdown. They are laws. They can’t be adapted every week by different officials.”

Indeed, the breakdown will again be where this game is won or lost with Munster last week dominating in the trenches through the work of CJ Stander, Chris Cloete, Rhys Marshall and Peter O’Mahony, who, on Friday, handed the squad a significant boost with the announcement of his commitment to Munster and Irish rugby.

Chris Cloete The battle at the breakdown will be key again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All eyes will be on Raynal and his interpretation of what is legal and illegal on the ground and if Munster can get on the right side of the officials, like they did with Jerome Garces in round three, you’d imagine they will have a good chance of replicating the result.

Yet, the odds are still stacked against them.

Notwithstanding the Tigers’ proud history, the hosts will also be gunning for revenge in front of their passionate fans under the lights at a sold-out Welford Road and, significantly, they look a far more dangerous and potent outfit this week with the return of Wallaby Matt Toomua and England international Manu Tuilagi.

The duo’s return from injury bolsters Leicester’s midfield considerably and there is no way they can be bad as they were last week, with Munster fully aware of what’s coming down the tracks at them.

Johann van Graan, for his part, has been forced into two changes with Marshall, outstanding in the 33-10 victory on what was just his second European start, a huge loss at hooker, with Kevin O’Byrne deputising for his first start in the competition.

Munster have also lost the in-form, and concussed, Andrew Conway who has been ruled out following that accidental collision with Tigers fullback Telusa Veainu — himself facing a lengthy period on the sidelines with a broken jaw — but Darren Sweetnam is a more-than-able replacement on the wing. Meanwhile, both Niall Scannell and Keith Earls are named on the Munster bench.

This will be the 10th time the sides have met and, much like all that has gone before, the stakes could not be any higher; Munster know victory in the East Midlands would put them within sight of the quarter-finals but equally defeat would leave everything wide open heading into January.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 00.53.33 Source: EPCR

It’s a huge game in the context of the pool, but just as much in the context of Munster’s season with both Conor Murray and Billy Holland highlighting its magnitude at different stages during the week.

“To progress, you need to get away wins,” Holland said. “I think we have progressed in many areas from last season and it’s days like last Saturday that prove that you have progressed from last season, rather than just feeling that you have.

“You can just prove to yourself, the coaches and your supporters that you have taken a step forward. So, it is a big game for us as a squad to see what direction you’re going.”

Each of the last four meetings between the clubs have been won by the home side on the day with Munster’s last victory at Welford Road coming during the pool stages of the 2006/07 season.

History will tell us that leaving this place with a prized scalp is incredibly hard to come by, but Munster are primed and well-equipped to meet the challenge head on.

A victory of any kind, by any means, would be a significant step forward for this team, and a major stepping stone towards the quarter-finals.

Leicester Tigers:

15. Mathew Tait
14. Adam Thompstone
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Matt Toomua
11. Jonny May
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs

1. Kyle Traynor
2. Tom Youngs (captain)
3. Dan Cole
4. Mike Fitzgerald
5. Graham Kitchener
6. Valentino Mapapalangi
7. Mike Williams
8. Sione Kalamafoni

Replacements:

16. Tatafu Polota-Nau
17. Logovi’i Mulipola
18. Chris Baumann
19. Dom Barrow
20. Luke Hamilton
21. Sam Harrison
22. Joe Ford
23. Nick Malouf.

Munster:

15. Simon Zebo
14. Darren Sweetnam
13. Sam Arnold
12. Rory Scannell
11. Alex Wootton
10. Ian Keatley
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Kevin O’Byrne
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Chris Cloete
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. Brian Scott
18. John Ryan
19. Darren O’Shea
20. Jack O’Donoghue
21. Duncan Williams
22. JJ Hanrahan
23. Keith Earls.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

‘This game is massive in many, many ways’: Murray calls on Munster to show progression

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Ryan Bailey

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