IT is difficult to remember when there was such doom and gloom around the Munster camp facing into a crunch pool game in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Victory at the Paris La Défense Arena on Sunday against French giants Racing 92 is a must if Munster are to retain any realistic hopes of quarter-final qualification, but at this juncture it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which Munster will achieve that result.
The two points dropped in the draw at home to Sunday’s opponents in November, as well as the failure to pick up a losing bonus point away to Saracens last time out, have left Munster with simply no wiggle room.
And then Munster go and pick a lousy time to have an injury crisis.
Outhalf Joey Carbery has barely returned from injury, after missing the majority of the past eleven months, and he is back on the treatment table, this time with a wrist injury. With JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal already on the sick list Munster head into a crunch game against one of the top sides in Europe without a recognised No. 10. The options would appear to be to either switch inside centre Rory Scannell in, or else to throw U20 outhalf Ben Healy in at the deep end and hope he swims rather than sinks.
It was a difficult enough task for Johann van Graan’s side even with a full deck to play from, but now it would appear to be approaching mission impossible status. Munster were already down influential second row Tadhg Beirne, and there are worries over their three main hookers Niall Scannell, Kevin O’Byrne and Rhys Marshall, and also doubts over the likes of Andrew Conway, Tommy O’Donnell and Fineen Wycherley, but this crisis at 10 would appear on paper to be a bridge too far.
That is the pessimistic point of view anyway.
An optimist might see it as a shot to nothing. A chance for Munster to throw off the shackles and just go for it. They could even start young Healy at outhalf and if he plays well then out of nowhere you have a 20 year old outhalf who has already proven that he has big game temperament. It could be akin to the moment that Johnny Sexton stepped in to replace Felipe Contepomi midway through the 2009 Heineken Cup Semi-Final between Leinster and Munster at Croke Park.
OK, maybe that’s being too optimistic!
Munster’s form this season has not given any real indication to suggest that they can pull off an unlikely win in Paris. It would certainly rank up there with famous away days in Bordeaux against Toulouse and away at Welford Road in Leicester if they were to prevail.
When looking for smidgeons of hope one can find them by looking at Racing’s domestic form in this campaign. Their Top 14 league form has been bang average, literally. They have played 13 games, winning 6, losing 6 and drawing the other.
On the 30th of November they lost to Bordeaux Bégles in a shoot out at the Paris La Défense Arena by 30-34, to prove that they can be got at at their intimidating unique indoor arena. Agen also got them into a pointsfest in October when fighting out a 27-27 draw, while Lyon scalped them there in September, on a scoreline of 30-21, as did Bayonne on the opening day of the season. It certainly is no fortress. You would have expected that the league results would have been largely a combination of home wins and away defeats, as is the norm in French club rugby, but this is not the case with Racing, who have been gloriously inconsistent.
Somehow Munster must brush off their recent attacking woes and put up a big score on Sunday in the manner of Bordeaux Bégles, Lyon and Agen.
Munster fans are well aware of the attacking threat that Racing possess based on the number of highly entertaining games between the two sides in recent years. The 21-21 draw in front of a packed Thomond Park in November was a case in point.
They will be hoping to see a performance close to the one that the reds gave at this venue two years ago, when they pushed their hosts all the way, until two late Maxime Machenaud penalties sealed a 34-30 win, in a thriller. Jean Kleyn, Keith Earls and Chris Farrell all crossed for tries that day. What they would give to hit the 30 point mark this time around.
That is the type of total needed to defeat Racing. They possess some of the top try scorers in French club rugby at the moment in the form of Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff, and with Finn Russell pulling the strings it will be difficult for the Munster defence to keep the scoreline to manageable proportions.
While Munster’s recent form has been downright poor, with the losses to Leinster and Ulster, in particular, sapping any momentum and confidence from the side, Racing have been hitting their stride. Recent league wins over Montpellier, Brive and Clermont have them bang on form, meaning there is little chance of Munster nabbing them on an off day.
Munster will travel in hope, and not much else, but then again, hope has been more than enough on previous occasions.