MUNSTER have three chances of securing top spot in Conference B of the Pro14 in the coming weeks, and the Grand Final spot that comes with it, with the first of those opportunities coming against second place Connacht at Thomond Park on Friday evening.
Bundee Aki’s last gasp try against Benneton last Friday at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo, to give Connacht a 17-19 victory, kept their own faint Grand Final qualification hopes alive, but anything but a Connacht win ob Friday night will mean that Munster have bagged that final spot with two games to spare.
With these two remaining games being home matches against the Scarlets and Benneton there seems little hope of Connacht being able to reel Munster in at this stage, regardless of the result this weekend. Munster have won 11 of their 13 league games to date, with their only two reversals coming to Conference A table-toppers Ulster and Leinster, and it would be some slip up to miss out on the final berth now.
The two sides met on January 9 at the Sportsgrounds with Munster squeezing home by 10-16, despite a late surge by the home side, when a 78th minute Peter Sullivan try was very nearly followed by a winning score in injury time. On home soil, even without the home crowd to perform the famous 16th man role, Munster will feel confident of repeating that win.
Munster, like they were two weeks ago for the trip to Edinburgh, have been bolstered by the release of some of their Irish crew from Andy Farrell’s Ireland camp. Andrew Conway, Shane Daly, Chris Farrell and Craig Casey are deemed to require game time right now, despite Casey’s late cameo when debuting against Italy last Saturday, and therefore are likely to see game time against this weekend.
Munster got the job done last Friday night against the Cardiff Blues, winning 11-20, but they only sealed the deal with a late Niall Scannell try and a Joey Carbery conversion. In fact, Cardiff missed two penalties in the second half that would have had Munster chasing the game in the final quarter, so you could argue that the home side left Munster off the hook on the night.
Munster are often accused of being too conservative in their approach, yet against Cardiff, if anything, they were running the ball too early and too often.
This weekend against Connacht we can expect Johann van Graan’s side to play a much more traditional possession and territory-based game, as to get involved in a shootout with Andy Friend’s side would be a mistake. Therefore, we can expect the battlegrounds that are the set pieces to have a major say in the outcome of this one.
The big story from the Cardiff game was, of course, the return of Joey Carbery from over a year off from a terrible ankle injury.
The Irish international outhalf got 16 minutes against the Blues and Munster fans will be looking forward to seeing him getting another run out this weekend, as the hope will be that he can get up to speed, and match fit, by the time the Grand Final on March 27th comes around.
Van Graan has been at pains to dampen expectations around Carbery’s return to action, but success-starved fans see him as the player most likely to drive Munster back to a level where they could win a first piece of silverware since 2011, so the impatience is understandable.
Carbery’s comeback wasn’t the only big news to come out of the Munster camp this week. Veteran second row Billy Holland announced that he was retiring at the end of this campaign, and he has already been receiving tributes for the huge career he has enjoyed at the club.
The other big news was also in the second row department, as footage was released of Springbok lock RG Snyman running for the first time since the cruciate injury he suffered last September in his first game for Munster.
As per Carbery, Snyman will not be rushed back. He is still probably a couple months away from a return to the sport, and the decision might be made to err on the side of caution and put him in cold storage until next season, although Munster fans will hope that he might be seen in action in the Heineken Cup campaign in April and May.