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5 important questions for Munster ahead of the Champions Cup

Back row selections, attacking progress, defensive aggression, Zeebs and the set-piece.

How does the back row best fit together?

Anthony Foley has quite the decision to make in terms of his back row, with CJ Stander, Robin Copeland, Tommy O’Donnell and captain Peter O’Mahony all pushing hard for first-choice status.

Peter O'Mahony Tommy O'Donnell and Peter O'Mahony have both looked in excellent shape. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Finding the right balance between the elements looks to be the key for the southern province. O’Mahony is still regaining full fitness, but his aggression, leadership, line-out skills and breakdown ability make him impossible to leave out.

O’Donnell has been in excellent form and looks to have added to his strength around the breakdown, while Stander has picked up a couple of man of the match awards early this season. Copeland still appears to be finding his feet back in Ireland, but his ball-carrying quality is well-known.

“I find it’s a good position to be in,” says Foley of his selection dilemma. “It’s about how we manage them during the week and making sure we get the players with the right amount of energy on the pitch.”

Can the attack continue to make progress?

Munster’s win over Leinster two weekends ago gave us perhaps the most obvious glimpses of what Anthony Foley and attack coach Brian Walsh want from their attack this season.

Andrew Smith Andrew Smith scored his first try last weekend, but will be keen to show more in attack. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The Munster head coach insists that he hopes his side will be able to strike in wide channels when opportunities are presented in those areas, but the platform looks like being built around the rucks and through Conor Murray’s playmaking.

Tougher tests of Munster’s ability to break teams down lie ahead, even if Sale are not quite watertight on D. Saracens take deep pride in their ability to limit linebreaks and opposition scores, while Clermont have superb athletes to make the big hits.

It seems likely that Foley’s men will indeed need to show more variety in attack to cut through those powerhouses, particularly in midfield. The likes of Denis Hurley and Andrew Smith will be asked to show cutting edge in that area.

Do the defensive strengths remain?

Last season, Munster’s run to the semi-final of the Heineken Cup was built on their ability to stifle and frustrate teams with their superb defence. In the likes of Paul O’Connell, O’Mahony, Damien Varley, Stander and others, the province have players who excel in this area.

Rhys Ruddock with Paul O'Connell and Ian Keatley Munster's defence was largely excellent against Leinster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As we saw in the win over Leinster, Munster can still slow, spoil and disrupt at the breakdown. In doing so at the Aviva, Foley’s men set a standard for themselves when the opposition are in possession.

Finding the emotional intensity required to implement so aggressive a defensive plan is not always easy, but Foley will look to ensure that his squad peak at the right times in that regard and deliver their best defensive form on the most crucial days.

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Defence coach Ian Costello has looked to add additional linespeed this season, and the signs against Leinster were also promising. Another stifling display against Sale this weekend would offer further encouragement.

Will the likes of Zebo get their hands on the ball?

We have seen Munster use their wings in and around the rucks so far this season, taking short passes from the halfbacks and looking to get involved in the game with extra touches in those zones.

Andrew Conway, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo Zebo will be looking for a steady supply of possession. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Any wide man will testify that getting into the game in this manner is welcome, but the flair players like Simon Zebo really want the pill in a little more space.

Foley and Walsh have spoken about using a passing option at 12 to find the back three more swiftly, but it’s not something they have backed up yet on the pitch yet, apart from a brief glimpse against the Ospreys.

If Hurley is to continue at inside centre, or even if Smith is used in that position, then Munster’s passing range is somewhat limited. What that pair does offer, however, is strong offloading ability, presenting Zebo and co. with a chance for linebreaks if their trail running is clever.

What shape is the set-piece in?

While refereeing preferences and disruptions can make it difficult to get a true barometer of a side’s scrum strength, Munster look to be in a solid position. BJ Botha remains important, although Stephen Archer continues to progress at tighthead.

Sean McCarthy and Dave Foley Foley is an excellent line-out forward. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The competition between Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin for the number one jersey must be a joy to watch for Foley, although the head coach has had to deal with well-documented injury problems in the hooker position.

It’s all about how the various parts function as a whole at scrum time, and the same can be said for the line-out. O’Mahony’s return is a major boost in the latter domain, while O’Connell remains one of the best line-out gurus in Europe.

With Dave Foley again impressing this season, it should be an area of real strength for Foley’s side, while they will look to get more from their maul in the coming weeks and months. One gets the sense the southern province have been holding back in that area so far this season.

The AJ Bell Stadium this weekend seems the perfect place to unleash it.

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Murray Kinsella

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