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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 21 October 2020
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Munster fighting for European lives in monumental clash against Racing

The task is a hugely demanding one for Johann van Graan’s men.

IT FEELS LIKE we’ve been here before.

Munster with their backs against the wall, fighting desperately to keep their European campaign alive. 

In January 2016, the southern province came to Paris with a similar task but a 27-7 failure against Stade Français was one of Munster’s darkest days in a very difficult season.

a-general-view-of-the-u-arena-before-the-match Racing's La Defense Arena awaits Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This Munster squad, steered by head coach Johann van Graan, will be hoping that the French capital does not hold similar hurt for them today as they look for a win against Racing 92 [KO 3.15pm Irish time, BT Sport] to ensure their hopes of advancing out of Pool 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup remain alive and kicking.

With 14-man Saracens having overcome an early red card to beat Ospreys yesterday, Munster approach this tie in third place in the pool, Racing the front-runners as they remain undefeated so far. 

While a draw or even a couple of losing bonus points in defeat might be enough to keep them alive mathematically in the race for a European quarter-final, Munster go into this tie understanding that it is almost certainly make-or-break.

Their recent poor form – two wins in seven games in a tricky run of fixtures – doesn’t bode well but Munster will back the pressing circumstances to bring out the best in them. That said, Racing are hunting a home quarter-final and will be in no mood to ease off the usual pace they play at in the perfect conditions in the indoor Paris La Défense Arena.

JJ Hanrahan’s return from a hamstring injury to start at out-half is a relief for van Graan, with Joey Carbery and Tyler Bleyendaal injured. Welcoming CJ Stander, Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, and Jean Kleyn back into the starting XV should also allow Munster to make a better fist of the collisions, which they lost regularly against Ulster last weekend.

Tadhg Beirne will be missed, however, on a day when his ability to spoil opposition possession would have been so useful. Munster simply must not allow Racing to get to their favoured turbo-charged tempo on this pitch, where they are, admittedly, not entirely unbeatable. 

They kicked off their season at home with two Top 14 defeats and then a draw with Agen, but it is also true that the Parisians have moved up another gear in terms of their form in more recent months. They’re currently unbeaten in nine games in all competitions, home and away.

conor-murray Conor Murray will be key for Munster. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Workling under the highly-regarded Irish attack coach Mike Prendergast, Scotland out-half Russell commandeers a supremely dangerous backline for Racing, with stars like Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff capable of devastating attacking brilliance.

Munster’s defence – second only to Saracens and Lyon in terms of restricting tries as we came into this weekend – will need to be at its very best, competing ferociously and attacking Racing’s possession at source with a truly vicious edge. Captain Peter O’Mahony must lead the breakdown and lineout onslaught with his most relentless performance in some time. Curiously, Racing have left Donnacha Ryan on the bench despite the Irish lock leading a superb lineout effort at Thomond Park.

Englishman Wayne Barnes on the whistle should ensure fair communication to both sides around the breakdown, where Racing will also attack through the likes of Wenceslas Lauret and Camille Chat. 

Munster must escape any feelings that they have already inflicted damage on their European hopes by drawing at home to Racing and losing the battle of the bonus points in their head-to-heads with Saracens, instead focusing on achieving a statement victory on the road this afternoon.

Van Graan has dispensed with his preference for a 6/2 bench split, with his replacements including the exciting scrum-half Craig Casey and outside back Shane Daly, although the lack of a back-up out-half means inside centre Rory Scannell will again provide cover for Hanrahan, whose hamstring will ideally allow him to go the full 80. 

Munster will have steeled themselves for this challenge with a belief that the home tie against Racing was truly one of fine margins, swinging on Russell picking out the injured Jeremy Loughman to tee up a try for Imhoff, and then Hanrahan narrowly missing with a late drop-goal attempt.

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While it was always likely that the new coaching team of van Graan, Stephen Larkham, and Graham Rowntree would take time to fully bed in their fresh ideas this season – particularly with the World Cup having stunted their chance of building cohesion – but this feels like a monumental tie for the province.

andrew-conway-with-finn-russell Munster will look to limit Finn Russell's impact. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This Pool 4 is one of the toughest imaginable, featuring three of the best teams in Europe, and that should be weighed up in any analysis of how it pans out, but there is little doubt that a group-stage exit in Europe would be unacceptable to a portion of Munster fans.

Defeat in Paris would invite some to pile the pressure onto van Graan and several of his senior players.

But a stirring European victory over Racing could be seminal moment in this province’s development. 

Either way, this should be a genuine thriller.

Racing 92:

15. Brice Dulin
14. Teddy Thomas
13. Virimi Vakatawa
12. Henry Chavancy (captain)
11. Juan Imhoff
10. Finn Russell
9. Teddy Iribaren

1. Eddy Ben Arous
2. Camille Chat
3. Ben Tameifuna
4. Boris Palu
5. Dominic Bird
6. Wenceslas Lauret
7. Bernard Le Roux
8. Antonie Claassen

Replacements:

16. Teddy Baubigny
17. Hassane Kolingar
18. Cedate Gomes Sa
19. Donnacha Ryan
20. Fabien Sanconnie
21. Maxime Machenaud
22. Ben Volavola
23. Olivier Klemenczak

Munster:

15. Mike Haley
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Niall Scannell
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Jack O’Donoghue
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. Jeremy Loughman
18. John Ryan
19. Arno Botha
20. Chris Cloete
21. Craig Casey
22. Dan Goggin
23. Shane Daly   

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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