MUNSTER CAN ALMOST taste it now, a return to the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup after the hurt of pool-stage exits in the past two seasons.
A bonus-point win away to Racing 92 last weekend moved the southern province to the top of Pool 1 with two rounds remaining, with Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow three match points behind.
As such, Saturday’s clash in Scotstoun [KO 5.30pm, Sky Sports 2] should be of thrilling proportions.
A Munster win would see them secure them a Champions Cup quarter-final, even before a weak Racing team come to Thomond Park in the final round of pool games.
Glasgow are fighting to keep their hopes of topping the group alive.
“It’s a massive one,” said Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus yesterday at their training base in UL. “Obviously, last week put us in a position to try and get it this weekend. Gregor and his team would see it the same way.”
Making this match-up even more intriguing is the fact that Munster crushed Glasgow at Thomond Park in their first Pool 1 meeting back in October, as they brought a truly incredible passion and accuracy just a day after burying Anthony Foley.
Erasmus’ men then pulled off a last-gasp 16-15 win at Scotstoun in December in the Guinness Pro12, with Ian Keatley’s drop goal getting them over the line.
While the Warriors were classy off the pitch on that difficult visit to Limerick back in October, they will be hugely motivated by the chance to redeem themselves this weekend after the two recent defeats to Munster.
“It will be more a game that will be decided by tactics and individual decision-making,” said Erasmus. “Both teams will have intensity, both teams will be highly motivated. Both teams will see it as a must-win game, both teams will be full strength.
“The week of Axel’s death was just an emotional week which you can’t really understand why we pitched up or why we played the way we did. You can’t really compare that to a normal week.”
Tommy O’Donnell is the chief injury concern for Munster this week, following an ankle injury against Racing, while Erasmus said yesterday that there are one or two other players carrying knocks.
The prospect of playing Glasgow on their synthetic pitch at Scotstoun will be a talking point this week, with Townsend’s side thriving on the firm surface and tearing many teams apart with their high-paced attacking approach.
In one way, it suits us because we enjoy playing that way,” said Erasmus, who pointed out that rain is likely this weekend in Glasgow, while some forecasts suggest there may even be snow.
Looking at his own team’s approach, Erasmus must be happy with the manner in which Munster are going about defending at present.
Under Jacques Nienaber’s tutelage, Munster have one of the best defences in Europe and the players are clearly relishing this side of the game. The province’s scrum, lineout and breakdown work are all excellent at present, while their kicking game is strong too.
Erasmus spoke about starting with building these foundations at Munster when he first arrived, so where does he see his team taking their next step?
“It’s to sync the three,” said Erasmus. “There will always be systems in defence, systems in attack, systems at the scrum and mauling. The other one is individual players.
“One doesn’t stand out above the other; if the individual player performs within the system that’s great. I think at stages on Saturday we didn’t always do that. We got the result but there were stages where we were almost a little one-dimensional in certain aspects of our game and sometimes we relied too much on the system.
“You want the individuals, as good players, to shine in the system. I think that will be the challenge, not just to be individuals or not just to be system-driven but to get the balance between those two. I think we’ll always have to work on that.”
Meanwhile, this weekend’s European action is sure to bring more focus on the redefined directives and increased sanctions around high tackles, which were implemented to varying severity last weekend.
Erasmus was happy with how English referee Matthew Carley managed this aspect of Saturday’s game in Paris, and said he doesn’t see sides moving towards cynically buying penalties for high tackles.
First of all, I must say our referee we had on Saturday, I thought he was spot on with it. We had two high tackles early on us, which I think if I watched the Friday game and the Saturday game before us, those referees would have given yellow cards and even penalty tries somewhere.
“I thought when we had two high tackles on us, the referee really handled it well. It was just high tackles, it wasn’t guys who on purpose wanted to smash someone in the face. I will never criticise the reason why they’re doing it, because it’s spot on – you can’t tackle guys around the neck.
“But I don’t think there’s many coaches who will coach to get penalties . I don’t think that will change. The reason behind it is the right reason. If the coaches and players stay honest about it and the referees understand what they’re trying to do, I think it will work.”
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