MUNSTER have the opportunity to really grab a stranglehold of the Pro14 Conference B table when last year’s Conference toppers Edinburgh come to town on Saturday evening.
In last year’s Conference B Edinburgh and Munster finished locked together on 51 points each, with the Scottish outfit finishing as Conference winners thanks to a better head-to-head record.
That superior head-to-head record was essentially down to one game when Edinburgh scalped Munster 16-18 in Cork last November.
Having beaten last year’s third-place team, the Scarlets, in last weekend’s thriller in Wales, this weekend’s encounter gives Munster the perfect opportunity to really stamp their authority early and to leave the two sides that are most likely to be their main rivals, in terms of securing that crucial home semi-final berth, with catching up to do.
Edinburgh lost 10-25 at home to the Ospreys last weekend, which was a huge surprise given Edinburgh topped Conference B last year while the Ospreys were rock bottom in Conference A.
Murrayfield had been a fortress in last year’s campaign, with seven-in-a-row wins being secured in the league until the Glasgow Warriors rocked up in the first home game post the Covid lockdown.
They lost 3-15 that day in late August and a week later they proved that they had completely lost their mojo when losing the Pro14 semi-final to a last-ditch Ian Madigan penalty, as Ulster went on to play Leinster in the final.
Three home losses on the trot mean Edinburgh are not in a good place as they travel to Limerick to face Munster, while Johann van Graan’s side should still be on cloud nine following the manner of their last-minute heroics last week.
In saying that Munster must jump on this ‘feel-good’ feeling and improve on their performance levels. As impressive and all as those last ten minutes were at Parc y Scarlets, it must not detract from the fact that the first 70 minutes were abjectly poor.
The discipline was terrible, the half-backs seemed to operating under instruction to kick the ball away, and prior to Chris Farrell crashing over for the second try, it was truly difficult to pick out any positives up to that juncture.
Ten minutes of high drama cannot disguise this.
Sure, the performance of the ice-cool Ben Healy in those last 10 minutes was a huge takeaway, as were the contributions off the bench from the likes of Gavin Coombes, Fineen Wycherley and Kevin O’Byrne, who all had huge impacts, but the fortuitous victory will only count for something if Munster learn from their mistakes, and as long as good form gets rewarded in terms of team selection.
The selection at out-half will be telling this weekend. Ben Healy only played three matches last season, and one of those was in the reverse to Edinburgh late last November, which ultimately cost Munster a home semi-final berth in the league.
Van Graan picked a virtual second string that night and got burnt. Healy actually played well on the night, but obviously, in his coach’s eyes, he did not deem him ready to challenge as a regular No. 10 option for the side. That has to change. JJ Hanrahan still has plenty to offer Munster, but we can be confident that he has reached his ceiling at this stage in terms of his career potential.
Quite simply Munster need a bigger output from the No. 10 shirt then the Kerry native is able to bring, and Healy’s cameo last weekend suggests that his ceiling is much higher.
There is only one way of finding out for sure though, and that is by starting Healy, and regularly.
The news of the Covid outbreak within the squad this week is obviously a worrying one.
First and foremost, hopefully everyone emerges healthy from the latest positive case within the squad, but there is the added effect of the entire Munster squad being stood down for two days during the week as they await the all-clear.
Those two days of missed training can have extremely negative connotations to a team’s preparations, as was the case when Munster faced Leinster back in the first game post lockdown back in August, with the result being that the team were undercooked when it came to physical confrontation, with multiple injuries being picked up as a result.
With a few games under the belt at this point losing a couple of days should not be so keenly felt, and with such a big squad all eager for game time you would expect that Munster will have enough to gain revenge on an Edinburgh side travelling to Thomond Park low on confidence.