FRESH from a comprehensive beating at the hands of arch-rivals Leinster last Saturday in the URC, Munster must quickly get back on the horse if they are to have any hopes of rescuing their season, starting with the first leg of their last-16 Heineken Champions Cup tie against the Exeter Chiefs on Saturday afternoon.
That defeat to Leinster was a sobering one. Any ideas that Munster were one of Europe’s big guns was washed away in the tidal wave that Leinster hit them with, as they secured a comfortable bonus-point victory on the hallowed Thomond Park turf.
One of the takeaway stats to emerge from the defeat to Leinster was the fact that Munster only had five lineouts in the entire game, and ended up losing three of them. That is the template for beating Munster right there.
Munster are so reliant on their lineout to gain ground and to create attacking opportunities that if you deny them that outlet then they struggle. So, the formula for beating Munster is to not kick the ball dead and to not concede penalties. Leinster managed both.
You would imagine that Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter will have taken note and we can expect a similar approach from the 2020 Heineken Champions Cup winners.
If the English giants keep the ball in play Munster will be out of their comfort zone, and Exeter could well then win the turnover penalties that will earn them entry deep into Munster territory, which is pretty much how they have strangled the life out of opposition teams for years.
Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Simon Zebo; Ben Healy, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (c), John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen.
Diarmuid Barron, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Jason Jenkins, Thomas Ahern, Craig Casey, Rory Scannell, Jack O’Sullivan.
Munster will be expecting a proper arm wrestle at Sandys Park. This would be particularly appealing given that they will be missing arguably their most important three forwards this weekend in the form of the injured trio of Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes and David Kilcoyne.
Of course, the fact that this game is a two-legged affair brings a unique element to this tie.
Normally a knockout European game would be win or bust, or even if it was a Pool encounter you might be thinking of garnering a losing bonus point in a situation where the game is gone, but the whole 160 minutes element makes Saturday fascinating.
The bottom line is that when referee Pierre Brousset blows the full time whistle on Saturday it is really only half time in the tie, with the entire second half to come next weekend at Thomond Park, in front of a boisterous Limerick crowd.
And that is the key point worth remembering. Obviously, it would be wonderful to come home from southern England with a win in the bag and full control over the tie, but even if they find themselves struggling on Saturday the heads must be kept clear.
Even if Exeter bring their considerable A game then Munster must get into damage limitation mode, slow the game down and play the clock, as next week on Shannonside it is going to be very different.
That’s the beauty of these home and away ties. We are bound to get one or two last-16 ties that will be extremely one-sided, with the likelihood being that the second leg turns into somewhat of a dead rubber, but one feels that Exeter v Munster will not be one of those, and it would not be a surprise if this one went right to the 160th minute.