FORMER English international Graham Rowntree and now Munster forwards coach has been very vocal over the last few days with boasts of enthusiasm and readiness as his players organise themselves for the mother of all clashes with Leinster tonight.
Rowntree, who was a no-nonsense front-row forward when he played the game, has made some statements that I hope his players can live up to.
Quotes such as, “we’re peaking at the right time, ready for knockout rugby”, and “we’re ready for another game. It’s coming on Friday night, it’s great for us. We’re ready”.
I am all for a positive philosophy, however, I’m also very mindful of reality and to use terminologies like “peaking at the right time” and “we’re ready” are very strong statements of intent with only two games played in the last seven months.
I have never coached at professional level, but if Rowntree thinks his players are at the pinnacle of their capabilities with only 160 minutes of game time under their belts I would love for him to explain to me how Leinster beat them in their first game and how a 13-man Connacht side managed to score two tries against a 15-man Munster defence.
If Rowntree thinks that this is an acceptable level of preparation to play and beat a Leinster outfit who is now ranked as one of the best squads in the world, can I suggest he re-thinks his career path?
At the end of the Leinster game two weeks ago when Munster’s substitute scrum-half Craig Casey, kicked the ball off the field with the match clock still breathing and only one score between the sides, it just sickened me, and I shook my head in disbelief.
For me it was almost like Munster had accepted their faith on that occasion and were happy with their losing bonus point. I guess times have moved on from my time in the red jersey, however, that’s not the attitude that infested the dressing room that I was privileged to occupy when we played the chaps from D4. It was win or hang your head in shame. Nothing else was deemed tolerable.
If Munster are going to challenge the potency of Leo Cullen’s squad for a spot in the final of this competition, they must look at playing the game differently to how they have chosen over the last few seasons and play with a bit more adventure and risk.
I’m not suggesting that they look at running the ball at every conceivable opportunity however, what I am stressing is that players like Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, who have the skill set of scanning the field in a split second and creating line break opportunities must be given more time with the ball in hand.
Everyone agrees that Munster are at their rampant best when the ball is kept in front of their forwards.
Well; sorry to burst everyone’s bubble but that is the case for all sides. If you don’t have headlong progression with the ball in hand you have no hope of winning anything.
The problem for Munster over the last few seasons is that they have relied on too few to do the donkey work and, like Ireland under Joe Schmidt, they are really easy to read and defend against.
CJ Stander is undoubtedly a fantastic ball carrier. However, he is as predictable as the trash that emanates from the mouth of Donald Trump every time he speaks.
Just watch him, and as sure as night follows day, Stander will never opt to pass or look for space to exploit when carrying the ball. All you need to defend against a player with Stander’s limited skill set is a couple of forwards who have no respect for their bodies and Leinster have these guys in abundance. The Leinster backrow will have him lined up at every opportunity.
The other area of the field that Munster have harsh restrictions is in their mid-field axis of Chris Farrell and new signing Damian de Allende.
Both these players have made their names by receiving the ball and running as fast and hard as they possibly can at their opposing numbers. Like the CJ Stander scenario, this method of getting over the gain-line to create try-scoring opportunities is very easily halted if the defenders come up hard and target their legs. Attempting to tackle these guys anywhere above the waste-line of the shorts is like trying to stop a runaway train.
The return to fitness of last week’s man of the match Tadhg Beirne is a much-needed boost to the Munster set-up as he is exactly the kind of player you want going into a game of this nature.
Beirne, who was foolishly released from Leinster a few years ago, is the complete package and not only can he keep defenders honest with his array of distributing skills, he also offers the grunt when it is required.
Up front, I believe that both sets of forwards will nullify each other’s challenge and the winners will be determined by the play-makers at nine and 10.
JJ Hanrahan, who is improving with every game, must have a flawless outing and the imperial Johnny Sexton must be challenged. When Sexton is provoked and afforded extra attention, Leinster are not as fluent as we have been accustomed to seeing and the pressure from Munster must be as clinical from minute one to 80.
Only a fool would bet against Leinster continuing their 23-match winning streak.