MUNSTER continue their Rainbow Cup campaign this Friday evening at home away to the Cardiff Blues looking to brush off the extremely disappointing defeat at the hands of Connacht, also at Thomond Park, in the last round.
The Reds made seven changes from the loss to Connacht as Mike Haley, Rory Scannell, Joey Carbery, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer, Fineen Wycherley and Tommy O’Donnell come in. Captain CJ Stander, O’Donnell and James Cronin start on their final appearances at Thomond Park.
The loss meant that Munster lost control of their own destiny in terms of being able to control whether they secure a place in the final on June 19, although Leinster’s failure to get a bonus point against Ulster on the same night means that they remain one point ahead of their great rivals and can therefore eliminate them with two bonus-point wins of their own in their final two games against the Blues and Zebre.
Leinster deserve special mention, well, because they are Leinster, but in truth seven of the 12 teams in the competition still harbour hopes of qualifying for that final next month. Three teams are on nine points, three are on ten, including Munster themselves, while surprise leaders Benetton have 14 points.
Given that they did not win a single game in the Pro14 season just gone you would not have much faith in the Italian side beating both Connacht and the Ospreys to seal that Final berth, so the target for Munster has to be to get to 20 points, which will probably be enough to secure top spot.
One of those teams still in the hunt happens to be the Cardiff Blues, as they have racked up nine points thanks to two thrilling one-point victories in their last two games against the Dragons and the Scarlets. Despite these feel-good triumphs you would still expect Munster to be too strong for the Welsh side on home turf, and especially so considering Munster have a point to prove.
The goodwill and confidence garnered from the impressive wins over Leinster and Ulster were washed away by that unexpected and disappointing defeat. The sheer frustration felt by the Munster players was tangible, and manifested itself in the post-match comments by CJ Stander with regards the referee on the night.
Regardless of the performance of referee Dan Jones, Munster must have been incredibly unhappy with their own display that night. They deviated from the approach that had worked so well against Leinster and Ulster and simply set out to bash Connacht into submission.
The westerners had taken a mauling at the hands of Leinster in their previous match so they had drawn a line in the sand themselves and travelled to Limerick to front up physically, and they did this in abundance.
Of course, a few decisions may have gone their way, and a few Munster handling errors also helped, but Connacht did what they had to do. Munster, on the other hand, did not.
So, this Friday Munster fans will be looking for a return to what they had seen in Rounds 1 and 2. They will be expected to really go after Cardiff in the physical stakes, but almost more importantly, they will be expected to box much cleverer this time around.
Munster’s leaders will be required to step up and put in some genuine international class performances, and not get distracted with quarrels with officials, while improvements at the lineout and in the team’s general discipline should be major team targets, as these were major negatives in the Connacht game.
Many were expecting this tournament to be used as an opportunity to test out the younger members of the squad, and while we will see a few younger faces on Friday, we can be very sure that Johann van Graan will be selecting the strongest team possible to secure the bonus point victory that is required to get Munster’s Rainbow Cup campaign back on track.
You could argue that Munster find themselves in somewhat of a no-win situation with regards this competition. If they go all out and win it then most observers will simply shrug their shoulders and say 'so what?', whereas if they are seen to give it 100% and come up short then it will be used as yet another stick to beat Munster with.
This is the unfortunate reality, but one that Munster cannot influence. All they can do is go out and win their next two games and hope that this is enough to secure a Rainbow Cup final berth against the best South African side next month.
If they manage that then they are unlikely to care what anyone thinks.