Given that five of their first seven matches were defeats Munster are now in the unfortunate situation where every league game has a must-win feel to it, and this week’s trip to Edinburgh is no different.
Their ambitions of winning URC silverware, as well as qualification for next year’s Heineken Champions Cup hang on Munster’s ability, or lack of, to climb the league table between now and season’s end. Munster’s young squad will certainly have earned any success this season, given the mountain they gave themselves in the opening rounds.
The good news, of course, is that Munster’s squad health is now the strongest it has been all season. There are still a number of players on the treatment table, but it is nothing like it was back in October, when it seemed to be that anyone fit was guaranteed game time. Munster went full strength last weekend against Connacht, with Graham Rowntree throwing all of his available returning internationals at the problem of needing a win, and the approach paid dividends with a 24-17 victory.
There is the small matter of balancing the amount of game time these Irish internationals are actually allowed to have for their provinces at this time of year, but Munster are likely to go as strong as possible, a week out from the start of their Heineken Champions Cup campaign on Sunday week against European heavyweights Toulouse at Thomond Park.
It is the first meeting between the sides since February, when a second half Simon Zebo hat trick lit up Thomond Park en route to a 34-20 win for Munster.
Edinburgh go into Friday’s fixture in fifth spot in the URC table, with four wins and four defeats coming from the opening eight rounds. They will have been disappointed with their 24-17 defeat way to Benetton last weekend, but we can expect a much stronger starting fifteen on home soil, so Munster will be up against it.
Munster’s last trip to eastern Scotland was in 2021 when they lost by 10-22 to Edinburgh at Murrayfield. They are now playing their home fixtures at the much more atmospheric DAM Health Stadium, with its cosy 7,800 capacity, rather than the echo chamber that was Murrayfield, so the welcome should be even more intimidating now.
Only three of Edinburgh’s games to date have been home fixtures, with them putting up huge scores in two wins over the Dragons and Benetton, 44 and 53, respectively, although they did come a-cropper against a strong Lions side in early October, when only scoring 19 in a 19-22 defeat to the South African side.
With a backline of such quality as Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli, Lions winger Duhan van der Merwe and fleet footed winger Darcy Graham, who has scored six tries for Scotland in this calendar year, Edinburgh have serious finishing power out wide. None of these players were in action last weekend in Italy, as it was very much a second-string side that head coach Mike Blair sent out, but Munster can expect to be up against one of the form sides in the league this weekend rather than the side who lost sheepishly in Italy.
Keith Earls did not make the matchday 23 last Saturday, but hopefully the veteran wing makes this one, while we can expect the considerable ballast of Cork duo Gavin Coombes and Edwin Edogbo to be utilised more this weekend, after both had been used on what was an incredibly strong bench last weekend.
Ultimately whether Munster win this one or not will probably come largely down to the performance of the front row. Munster’s scrum was eaten alive in the first half last Saturday against Connacht, only for Munster to somehow remain in contention on the scoreboard. One imagines that away from home, with a boisterous home crowd baying for blood under Friday night lights they may not be so lucky this time around.
Munster’s young front rowers are certainly being fast tracked this season in the experience stakes, which is likely to have significant benefits in the long run, but given Munster’s need for success right now they can’t be over generous with game time either, if players are struggling out on the pitch. Rowntree may have to use his bench resources much quicker on Friday if Munster are struggling in this sector