The Tom Savage column: Munster can finish off the wounded Tigers

The Tom Savage column: Munster can finish off the wounded Tigers
Peter O'Mahony celebrates after scoring. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

DON’T expect it to be as big a win as last year. 

That’s what I wrote in this very column last Friday evening. Look, I’m man enough to admit I was wrong.

The score might not have been as big as last season but this was a more comprehensive dismantling of the Leicester Tigers than last year’s 38-0 win.

Physically and tactically speaking, this was Munster’s best performance of the season by a country mile.

The performance against Racing had the physicality but lacked the handling, cutting-edge, and control that Munster displayed on Saturday night.

In one way, this Munster performance was embodied by the last five minutes of the second half. Leicester had finally managed to eke out some territory and an attacking platform. With the clock going red, a lot of teams would have put up a basic maul defence and get back into the sheds ahead of next week.

Not Munster. They repelled the Leicester maul like it was a one-score game and did the same with a Leicester scrum a few minutes later. Munster treated that sequence of defence exactly like it was - a statement before half time in a game that still has 80 minutes to run.

That ‘not today, lads’ defensive line was the work of a side that are laser focused on next week’s game and that certainly seemed to have an effect on the Tigers at the end - they looked beaten, and not just on the scoreboard.

The results from earlier in the day had meant a Munster win would be substantially more valuable than it was on Friday. A bonus point win was even better and it left Munster on 10 points - four points ahead of Racing and Leicester.

Castres home win against Racing mean they sit in second place and, all of a sudden, the draw there in round one doesn’t look as bad.

A win next week - something that Munster will be targeting off the back of last season’s lessons - would put Munster into a commanding position in this pool.

The mirroring of last season’s result will, in a lot of ways, help focus minds in the Munster camp ahead of a trip to Welford Road.

These Tigers have shown that bad results like this motivate them to show up in the return leg and Munster will have to go out and prove that they’re ready to advance on the foundations of last season.

The one thing that will please Van Graan - perhaps even above the bonus point win - was the performance of his European Cup newbies and depth options.

Darren O’Shea and Brian Scott came off the bench and more than looked the part. Rhys Marshall, so long the impact guy for Niall Scannell, played like an elite hooker here and widely outshined both of his opposite numbers. Sam Arnold won the man of the match award from BOD and played like a guy far beyond his first Munster European cap and 21 years. He was an immensely physical presence in the midfield and cannoned into the Leicester midfield like a ballistic missile. Very impressive.

And then there was Chris Cloete. Very few people knew anything at all about Chris Cloete prior to his arrival in October but for those walking out of Thomond Park on Saturday night, he was all most people could talk about. He was absolutely outstanding here — again — and was a constant thorn in Leicester’s paw all evening long. He was rock solid over Munster’s ball, burrowed through Leicester’s rucks like a corkscrew and acted like an additional halfback at times. Munster haven’t had a fetcher like this in the #7 shirt in the professional era and his ability to turn over the Tigers in the tackle, on the floor and choke up men six or seven inches taller than him in mauls was astounding. What a signing.

Johann Van Graan has all that to admire plus the impending return of Chris Farrell, James Cronin, Conor Oliver, Gerbrandt Grobler and Tyler Bleyendaal.

That’s the kind of stepping up that you want from a squad and, to top it off, at the business end of 2017.

Munster won’t forget the lessons of last season - both ahead of this week and, indeed, the weeks to come. Nothing gets won in December, but you can lose plenty. This week was a real statement but it was half of one. A win next week would be the kind of signal the whole of Europe will see.

Time to put down some wounded Tigers.

Simon Zebo in action. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo in action. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

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