THE Emirates Lions travel 13,000km to play Munster at Musgrave Park on Friday evening knowing that the nature of Munster’s last-gasp victory over Ulster has made their task significantly harder, as there is likely to be a serious pep in Munster’s step for this one.
We can often be found guilty of over egging results, but it is no exaggeration to state that Sunday’s late victory grab was possibly Munster’s most important win in years, as not only did it potentially save this season, but it might also have saved the next one as well.
While Munster are obviously keen on garnering a play-off spot in this year’s URC campaign, the clubs qualification for next year’s Heineken Champions Cup is arguably just as important. A loss on Sunday would have effectively taken both of those goals out of their hands, but the 14-15 win means that Graham Rowntree’s troops are back in control of their own destiny.
There is no great rivalry, yet, between Munster and the Lions – in their one match last year the Lions beat Munster 23-21 at Ellis Park, after Munster had led by eleven at the break – but the reality is that they are very much direct rivals for one of the last Champions Cup slots for next season. Munster currently are three points ahead of the Lions in the table, but the Johannesburg based franchise have a game in hand.
In football they would refer to such a contest as a six-pointer, as the winner of this one has the opportunity to put down a marker and move clear of their opponent.
The Lions picked up a victory in their first ever Champions Cup game against Stade Francais in mid-December, as their first scheduled match against Worcester couldn’t take place due to that club no longer being in existence, but in the league they haven’t won since a win over the Scarlets a month ago.
Since then they have drawn with the Dragons and have suffered two heavy defeats to the Sharks and the Stormers in the Christmas derby ties in South Africa. It would appear to be a good time for Munster to play them.
One of the big talking points to emerge from Munster’s win over Ulster was the respective contributions of young outhalves Jack Crowley and Ben Healy in ensuring Munster got over the line. Both are proud young Munster men, with serious love for the jersey, and quite simply Munster would not have won without them.
Munster looked to be going nowhere until Crowley somehow unlocked Ulster’s defence around halfway with a simply scintillating break through the centre.
They might have not scored directly from this break but you could sense the score coming from that moment onwards.
The likes of Alex Kendellen and Gavin Coombes put in the hard work to tighten the Ulster line defence as much as possible, before the ultra-patient Conor Murray released the incredibly impactful Healy to crash over for the crucial winning score.
Many supporters will have wondered re the last time Joey Carbery had such a positive impact on a Munster result.
Given that there is a serious chance that Munster may end up losing Healy to Scottish rugby in the coming months a lot of Munster supporters would prefer if the club backed the two young Munster men, rather than the more experienced Carbery, who has not looked fully comfortable and convincing in the Munster red for about four years now, if we are being completely honest.
That story is going to run and run for a while, with Healy likely to get more opportunities in the coming weeks to jump himself up the pecking order for the famous Munster no. 10 shirt.
We can expect that battle to change a number of times this season, and that is fine, as there should be competition for the jersey. The big issue, of course, is whether Rowntree can keep everyone happy sufficiently happy to keep them all interested in this emerging Munster project.
Munster took a significant step forward with their victory over Ulster on New Year’s Day.
It is extremely important that they do not take an immediate step backwards on Friday evening.
A win, once again, is crucial.