The David Corkery column: There's a demanding road ahead for Munster

The David Corkery column: There's a demanding road ahead for Munster

Munster's Chris Farrell is tackled by Ben Tapuai and James Chisholm of Harlequins. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr

FAR from pretty, but a great start in a competition where there is zero room for error.

With this new Champions Cup format bursting into life over the weekend, it is looking like that if any side has ambitions of reaching the last eight, they will need to win all their four pool games.

With seven teams having already posted bonus-point victories the road that lies ahead for Munster will be long and demanding should they manage to reach the quarter-finals.

I’m in no way suggesting that Peter O’Mahony and his fellow players are not capable of reaching the last eight; however, considering the strength and calibre of the two teams they must play against, it is going to take some special performances in order for them to qualify.

Next week’s challenge for Munster, which presents itself in the form of an away trip to ASM Clermont Auvergne who managed to score 51 points (seven tries) away to a very good and star-studded Bristol side, will require that Johann van Graan and his players up their performance if they are to add to their run of eight straight victories in a row.

Looking at this game in the hallowed grounds of Thomond Park in what you could only call brutal weather conditions, Munster did three things really well that saw them emerge victorious and got their campaign off to a super start.

First of all, it is very difficult for any coach to integrate players back into any squad that has been absent for a prolonged period and that’s exactly what Van Graan had to do when Ireland’s international players returned to Limerick from their Autumn Nations Cup battles.

There is a very fine line to be walked in situations like this and it looked as if players such as Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, and CJ Stander fitted seamlessly back into a Munster side that has been doing perfectly fine without them.

I’m sure that the Munster players who were deputising in this eight-week international window would not have been happy with handing back their jerseys; however, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles and, for now, the Munster camp seems to be just as unified as it was before their superstars departed.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The second aspect of Munster’s play that shone through during this game was that there finally seems to be an acceptance from the Munster coaching ticket that how they go about playing the game needs to change. 

Despite the atrocious elements that challenged the players, Munster seemed really comfortable to keep the ball in hand and look to build phases in order to gain territory.

When I saw the weather forecast, I really thought that I was going to have to endure 80 minutes of Conor Murray and JJ Hanrahan having a personal battle between themselves of who could kick the ball away more often.

Thankfully, this was not to be the case and to see the Munster decision-makers looking to spread the ball wide and for all the players to carry ball with a view to keeping it alive was a pleasurable surprise. The fruits of employing a coach with Stephen Larkin’s vision and inventiveness finally seem to be paying off and while there is still so much to do, at least the transformation seems to have started.

The final part of Munster’s play that was really impressive was their discipline. As Harlequins failed time and time again to take advantage of the very few opportunities that Munster afforded them at keeping the scoreboard ticking over, the men in red were more than happy to lap up all the mistakes and unforced errors that their London visitors offered them and in doing so ground out a solid victory.

Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

When any side you play against ends up with all three of its back row being shown a yellow card, it is virtually impossible to build any kind of momentum and I’m sure that Harlequins coach Paul Gustard would have voiced his displeasure to his players after the final whistle.

Van Graan and his players will only know too well that Harlequins contributed handsomely to their own demise and that when they travel to the Stoop for the return fixture on the third weekend in the new year, things will be different and the opposition will have a completely different mindset.

TOUGH TASK:

When you look at the quality of rugby that the top sides are producing in this year’s competition it is near on impossible to see how Munster could have any hope of winning it outright; however, the youth in this squad are exhibiting a characteristic that has been missing for many a year now and that is assurance.

When you see the likes of Ben Healy, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, and the Wycherley brothers comfortably mixing it with the so-called elite of the English premiership it can only paint a very positive picture for where Munster is heading.

Next week’s game in France will be another challenge completely. I can only hope the Munster youth who performed so commendably over the last few months will be afforded the opportunity to continue on their pathway to becoming the backbone of Munster for the next decade.

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