IT’S too early to call Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup clash against Clermont Auvergne on Saturday evening, at the imposing Stade Marcel-Michelin, a must-win tie, but quarter-final qualification will be extremely difficult if they leave French soil empty-handed.
The big news for Munster is the absence of 21-year-old out-half, Ben Healy, due to the shoulder injury he sustained in the round-one victory over Harlequins last Sunday.
Healy had come on as a replacement for JJ Hanrahan, in the 59th minute, and was immediately targeted by the English side. Their skipper, Alex Dombrandt, was first up, with a despicable, no-arms late hit on Healy, and it was hard to understand referee, Pascal Gauzère’s decision to only dish out a yellow card.
Not sending him off was like an invitation to the other Quins players to have a go, with England prop, Joe Marler, next to have a cheap, late shot on Healy.
The damage had already been done, though, in what Munster head coach, Johann van Graan, described as “quite clearly a tactic from the opposition” and “unacceptable”.
Hanrahan will now start this Saturday and the likelihood is that Rory Scannell will cover the out-half position from the bench.
There is frustration, as Healy should really have started last weekend, and the sliding doors effect saw him get injured.
Hanrahan seemed to get the 10 shirt on the basis of his Man-of-the-Match display against Zebre two weeks ago, but, in these pages, we called out the fact that the Zebre game should have been used as an opportunity for either Jake Flannery or Jack Crowley to start, as Munster were just one injury away from a crisis at out-half.
Well, that crisis appears to be upon us, and now Munster have two exciting young ‘10s’ who have had no game time at this level.
That has to be a black mark against van Graan.
Munster may have won the game, but they find themselves in only sixth position in Pool B. Five teams in the pool registered bonus-point victories on opening weekend, whereas Munster failed to score the four tries required to pick up that vital extra point.
Of those five clubs, Lyon and Racing 92 appear to have straightforward paths to securing two of the four quarter-final berths, as they look likely to win every game, which would only leave two spots for everyone else to fight over.
Luckily, Toulouse and the Exeter Chiefs must play each other home and away. All the other teams in the pool will be hoping they cannibalise each other. Two home wins with no bonus points and they could well both be out.
That leaves only Saturday’s opponents, Clermont Auvergne, standing in Munster’s way. Already, they look a significant obstacle.
For the record, they played again a week later in Clermont-Ferrand, with Munster grabbing a losing bonus point, through a late Duncan Casey try, as Clermont did the double over Munster with a 26-19 win.
Munster have never won at this venue in four attempts, and some of those attempts were in the Munster heyday, at the end of the noughties.
The 51 points they put on the Bristol Bears, away from home, last weekend, were simply frightening, although the 38 points they shipped will have given van Graan’s side hope that there are weaknesses that can be got at.
Star of the show for Clermont was their flying Japanese wing, Kotaro Matsushima, who bagged himself a hat-trick on his tournament debut, although French international Damian Penaud was not far behind him with a brace, as they went over the brittle Bristol whitewash on seven occasions.
Their form in the Top 14 has been excellent as well. The table lists them as the tournament’s current fourth-place team, but they have games in hand on every team above them and, potentially, could be top of the table once those extra games are played.
Victory on Saturday would go down as one of Munster’s greatest away days, certainly in recent seasons, anyway, and worst-case scenario, they must make sure they leave with at least a losing bonus point to keep their hopes of progression alive.