David Corkery on why Munster must kick up the gears for Champions Cup

David Corkery on why Munster must kick up the gears for Champions Cup

Conor Murray will return from Ireland duty for Munster's Champions Cup opener this weekend. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

SUNDAY: Champions Cup: Munster v Harlequins, 5.30pm.

AT last, some rugby with a substantial amount of pedigree.

The Autumn Nations Cup wasn't exciting or stimulating, or even worthwhile apart from filling a rugby gap in recent weeks. As a concept, it was dull, uninteresting to watch and lacked any kind of inventive thought process.

Apart from Georgia who got to play against Tier 1 sides on a week-to-week basis, none of the other competing nations will have been happy with their results and this is certainly prevalent in Ireland boss Andy Farrell's case.

Poor performances in all but the final game against Scotland have ended Farrell’s honeymoon period and the shotguns are now locked and loaded should the rapidly approaching Six Nations not produce favourable results for this coaching ticket. To say there is work to be done is a slight understatement.

The good news for Farrell now is that he can reflect for a few weeks and watch his players performing in a tournament that means something; one where the players know there are consequences with not doing well.

Unless there are penalties associated with anything in life you will never know if someone is truly capable of dealing with pressure and with the Heineken Champions Cup long viewed as the barometer for Munster to measure their season, we can all get back to sitting on the edges of our seats and watching players perform when it matters most.

The last time Munster had their palms crossed with silver was when they saw off the challenge of Leinster way back on May 28, 2011 and that is way too long for a team with Munster’s status to be deprived of popping the champagne corks.

That day Munster manufactured a brilliant 19-9 win over their nearest and dearest at Thomond Park in the Celtic League Grand Final. Interestingly enough the only two players who are still involved in this year’s squad are Keith Earls and Conor Murray. 

Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

And to remain at the pinnacle of professional rugby for this length of time is a credit to their work ethic and professionalism.

Every coaching job, no matter at what level you are involved at places a massive amount of pressure on your shoulders and with Munster’s Johann van Graan now entering his third campaign at the helm, he finds himself at a crossroads in his coaching career.

No silverware in over 10 years not only effects the supporter base, but also the bank balance and professional sport is not an entity that is fabricated to be compassionate.

Ten years of producing nothing to fill the trophy cabinet may have had nothing to do with van Graan but that’s the way the cookie crumbles and he has inherited a situation now that he will be held accountable for whether he likes it or not.

He either produces the goods or he’ll be moved on very shortly. End of argument.

Thus far, this season has had mixed emotions for van Graan and his squad.

Already hit with the news that Joey Carbery was going to be sidelined for a considerable length of time, van Graan then had to deal with his big-money South African signing RG Snyman suffering an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture, which is no quick fix.

With only seven minutes having elapsed on the World Cup-winning second rows debut it was a very unfortunate injury for both club and player. It was hoped that Snyman would take up the enforcer role which Paul O’Connell left vacant when he retired. 

I think all of us Munster fans were looking forward to seeing if the giant lock was going to be capable of filling such a big pair of boots. Hopefully his recovery will be a successful one and he gets back to full fitness.

On the flip side and despite losing his international players to Farrell's squad for nearly nine weeks, van Graan's team remains unbeaten in this year’s Guinness Pro14.

Seven wins from seven starts is no small feat and the young guns who have been deputising for the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and C.J Stander won't be that willing to hand the jerseys back for the visit of Harlequins to Thomond Park this weekend. Or at least I hope they won’t.

The step-up in intensity between playing in the Pro 14 and the European Cup is big and while the youth of Munster have been playing extremely well and coping admirably, there needs to be a blend of youthful vigour combined with a smidgeon of wise heads scattered throughout the matchday squad.

VITAL GAME

Harlequins may not have a vast number of players involved with England at this time however, all that means is that they will be a far more cohesive side to Munster when it comes to understanding their plays and game philosophies.

Playing at home in your first game is always a big plus, but with the qualifying format having changed, this game is a must-win for the Reds.

In order to qualify for the knockout stages, there is zero room for any slip-ups and realistically any side who is looking to progress cannot afford to lose any of their games, home or away.

A top-two finish in Munster’s pool is well within their capabilities but winning it is probably a wish too much.

Once we see Munster looking to play a more expansive game and move away from the Conor Murray box-kick approach in order to gain territory, I think they are on the correct track.

They have finally invested in the youth throughout the province and let's hope they stick with it.

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