MUNSTER need to overturn a five point deficit against former winners the Exeter Chiefs on Saturday at Thomond Park if they are to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive in what could be a season defining last-16 tie for the club.
Last week’s first leg was a strange encounter and it is difficult to know what to expect this week as a result.
It was a game that looked like getting away from Munster early on, given the home side’s dominance, yet a pair of sin binnings for Exeter meant that suddenly Munster looked favourites to win, and yet, at the very death, Munster needed a superb try saving tackle from Keith Earls to keep the margin to just five.
Munster certainly do not want Saturday’s game to be as topsy turvy as that game at Sandy Park.
Bar the period in the second half where Exeter were reduced to thirteen men Munster really struggled for any modicum of control and that will have to change this weekend.
Many Munster fans may question how Stephen Archer and Niall Scannell are selected week in, week out in the Munster front row, regardless of form, but you would imagine that both the incoming and outgoing head coaches, Graham Rowntree and Johann van Graan, select the pair in order to give Munster some solidity in the scrum.
Munster struggled in this area at Exeter and if that repeats at Thomond Park then the Chiefs could well have themselves an avenue into the tie.
One of the areas where we can expect a change is the penalty count, as you would envisage that the home side will not get blown out of it in the manner in which Munster were last week, particularly in the first half.
But that is something the Munster players and management need to take ownership of too.
They can’t just rely on a ‘hometown ref’ to bail them out. In recent big games, such as last week against Exeter, and the week before against Leinster, they have been finding themselves conceding far too many penalties.
The discipline just has not been good enough, and it is up to the team themselves to rectify this, to research the respective referee on the day, to interpret what he/she is looking for, and to adapt accordingly.
Currently this does not seem to be happening.
Of course, it does not help to have so many injuries, particularly in the back row.
Gavin Coombes, Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne all missed last week, and it looks as though Alex Kendellen and Jack O’Sullivan could well miss this Saturday due to knocks sustained last week.
The expectation is that captain Peter O’Mahony will return this week, and Chris Cloete can come back in, but in terms of effective ball carriers in the back row Munster suddenly look very light.
It would be no great surprise to see van Graan and Rowntree plump for one of their second rows at blindside.
Fineen Wycherley and Jason Jenkins could play at 6, and this would be particularly appealing given the form of Thomas Ahern off the bench.
The 6ft 9” Waterford native looks ready for first team duty and has a real X-Factor to his game with his size, speed and athleticism.
He offers something that none of the other Munster second rows to and van Graan cannot hold back the 22 year old any longer.
Shane Daly only played last Saturday due to the late withdrawal of Simon Zebo due to illness, and he lit up proceedings with a scintillating try in the second half that got Munster within touching distance.
The temptation will be to reintroduce Zebo, if fully recovered, but given his display last weekend Daly should probably be rewarded with reselection, with Zebo impacting off the bench.
When these two sides were drawn against each other in this two-legged format one always got the feeling that it could go right to the wire. Whenever they have clashed games tend to be cagey, tight, low scoring affairs, and Saturday will probably be no different.
We will not be expecting a ‘tryfest’ at Thomond Park this Saturday, but that does not make this tie any less appealing, for the purists at least.