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Dublin: 20 °C Saturday 18 August, 2018
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Matching aggression to width looks the key for Munster

Perpignan represent a different challenge at the Stade Aimé Giral, but Rob Penney’s men can do a job.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

WHEN THE DRAW was made, the key to Munster’s comfortable progression from Pool 6 of the Heineken Cup looked to be winning one of the away ties against Gloucester or Perpignan.

An unforeseen defeat in Edinburgh on the opening day of the competition has changed that perception though, and it now appears that Rob Penney’s men will have to win both if they are to advance, even before considering the possibility of a home quarter final.

Captain Peter O’Mahony has constantly spoken about treating this pool as a cup run after that loss in round one, taking every game as a knock-out and never focusing too far into the future. In that vein of thought, this afternoon’s clash in Perpignan [KO 3.40pm Irish time] will be a testing one-off final.

USAP were well beaten at Thomond Park last weekend, but they pose a different challenge at their beloved Stade Aimé Giral. A crowd of around 16,500 will work up quite the racket, but any ideas that Munster will be intimidated by that are wide of the mark. The improvement of Marc Delpoux’s men on the pitch is more of a cause for concern.

Although they are without captain James Hook, Luke Charteris and Dewaldt Duvenage – all three have been given a timely week off – this Perpignan XV is slightly stronger than the one which lined out in Limerick. The returning Lifeimi Mafi and Luke Narraway are particular boosts, while those retained from last time will almost certainly play with a higher work-rate.

On paper, Munster should beat this Perpignan team but that is to ignore the Top 14 side’s qualities when they play at home. The real reasons French sides are so different when they travel deserve the dedication of a book, or at least a research paper, but for Perpignan the offloads seem to stick and the tackles are completed far more often on home soil.

Perpignan will be better; we don’t need to repeat it any more. That means Munster will need to be clinical with their chances and hard working in defence. One of the more surprising features of last weekend was that Munster were happy to allow the game to break up and looked comfortable in the more open passages of play.

image

Ian Keatley practices at the Stade Aimé Giral yesterday. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

That Penney had identified one of USAP’s strengths and decided to take them on at that very counter-attacking game was suggestive of his growing confidence as Munster coach. There are still some who question his methods – and the Kiwi has displayed frustration at that – but Penney truly believes in this group of players.

That faith will need to be repaid in Catalonia. The knee injury to Conor Murray shears Munster of a man who has grown into the on-field leader we had hoped he would, but Cathal Sheridan has shown he is ready for this chance. It is men like himself and James Cronin, younger players backed by Penney, who will be the difference makers.

It would be tempting for the New Zealander to ask his players to adopt a more cautious, territory-based game plan for this clash in Perpignan, and while there will obviously be elements of that, Penney won’t turn his back on the way he wants this team to play.

Munster’s biggest wins over the last two years have been put down to a reversion to ‘traditional’ strengths but if there is any team in the world whose traditions do not include winning the collisions and defending aggressively, then they are not successful ones.

If Munster do both of those things at the Stade Aimé Giral, matching them to their desire for width, they will emerge with four precious points.

Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Cathal Sheridan; James Cronin, Damien Varley, BJ Botha; Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony(capt.), Sean Dougall, James Coughlan.

Replacements: Duncan Casey, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.

Perpignan: Joffrey Michel; Richard Haughton, Lifeimi Mafi, Watisoni Votu, Sofiane Guitoune; Tommy Allen, Nicolas Durand; Sébastien Taofifenua, Romain Terrain, Ion Paulica; Sébastien Vahaamahina, Guillaume Vilacéca; Dan Leo, Alasdair Strokosch, Luke Narraway (capt.).

Replacements: Guilhem Guirado, Pascal Cotet, Jean-Baptiste Custoja, Jutin Purll, Tom Ecochard, David Marty, Tommaso Benvenuti, Jean-Pierre Perez.

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Murray Kinsella

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