ERC Quarter Final Preview: Munster vs. Toulouse

erc_logo

RBS 6 Nations is in the books. The clocks have gone forward one hour. We are at the end of March which means that the ERC quarter finals are fast looming on the horizon. Munster entertains Toulouse at a sold out Thomond Park next Saturday evening in a contest which will see two perennial European stalwarts go head to head for a place in the last four. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action in a fixture which will be intriguing to say the least for a number of reasons.

Half Back Battle:

ireland_conor_murray

Murray 50/50 for Toulouse contest

This is the weekend where the head coaches will earn their money. Both sides on paper look evenly matched so it will be interesting to see what mismatches either side try to exploit on Saturday. With partly cloudy skies the forecast (at the time of publishing the blog), a lot is to going to depend on the half backs.

Bleyendaal has being a real find this season for Munster. The New Zealander has had his injury problems but has shown his true worth at ten this season. Bleyendaal loves to play on the front foot; looking to engage defenses when he can launch the likes of Zebo, Earls, Taute and Scannell. The question on Saturday is can Bleyendaal mix up his game enough to keep Toulouse off balance defensively? His kicking from hand will be key at various points.

The big question leading into this contest from a Munster perspective is the fitness of Conor Murray. The shoulder injury sustained on international duty has resulted in the scrum-half sitting out the last two games (England and Zebre). Murray needs to be completely ready to go to start this fixture.

Duncan Williams has shown to be an able deputy when he executes the basics well. It will be interesting to see if Murray takes part in full training early this week. Williams if called upon needs to keep the game plan simple; good exit strategy / accurate passing from the ruck, nothing fancy.

If Murray plays, it is a massive boost to the province. The Limerick native has had a superb season; his game has evolved with ball in hand. Opportunistic tries from close range matched with some sublime passes (Zebo try against Leicester in round three) to the fore. Defensively, there is no better nine to organize and tackle. Murray’s should concern hopefully has addressed itself in the most important game of Munster’s season.

Toulouse half-back partnership for Saturday remains to be seen. Doussain and McAllister rotated the ten position in their defeat to Bordeaux Begles last weekend. Bezy and Doussain (filled in late on) played the nine position.

Bezy in particular was prominent in the opening period. His sniping runs off the ruck created excellent game line yardage in the opening half; one of these runs setup good Toulouse position to allow Medard to score his try. Munster must be wary of the running threat of Bezy on Saturday.

Doussain was designated goal kicker against Bordeaux and hit 2 / 3 attempts. The uncertainty on the half-back partnership surely will do little for Toulouse’s continuity ahead of this fixture. Munster have the slight edge if Murray is fit, otherwise 50/50 in this unit.

Pack Battle:

ireland_cj_stander

Can Stander provide the platform for Munster to prosper?

Toulouse’s game plan is pack orientated; create the platform for their half backs to launch an exciting back line. The Bordeaux Begles contest saw the good and the bad of the unit. They were physically imposing in the opening half; won the pack exchanges and on another day should have more than the eight points on the board. Tekori, Albacete, Gray, Maestri to the fore. The front row is experienced; Johnston continues to be his abrasive best in open and set piece. Ghiraldini is a solid hooker and Steenkamp is a scrummaging beast.

The physicality and bulk of the pack can work in two ways: going well, they are formidable but there have being issues finishing out matches. Connacht’s win against Toulouse was created by a willingness to move Toulouse’s pack around the pitch; exhaustion set in with penalties conceded at a rapid rate of knots by the French side. Bordeaux employed a similar tactic last weekend; they saw more possession in the second half and were far more incisive in their running lines.

Toulouse’s pack going backwards was repeatedly pinged for breakdown infringements which gave easy points to the hosts in the second half. The Bordeaux try is perhaps a side note for Saturday; a break straight through the ruck area allowed the hosts to setup a 2-1 on situation allowing Lesgourgues to cross over and secure the win. The try created due to a lapse in defensive concentration at the ruck area.

Munster’s pack has improved this season. The set piece has being solid. The scrum in particular has gone well in the key fixtures where Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan have stepped up to the plate.

The abrasive running lines of Kilcoyne in particular has provided excellent platform for Murray / Bleyendaal to launch attacks. The second row combinations this season have being on point. Ryan has led the team with his work rate and leadership. His performances against Leicester (at home) and Racing Metro (away) were standouts. Kleyn and Holland has provided stellar support in set piece and open play.

Provided the scrum goes well, Munster’s back row options look ominously good. Tommy O’Donnell provides pace and abrasiveness at the breakdown. The other two back row players do not need an introduction. Stander has excelled this season to new heights; his ball carrying exploits will cause Toulouse massive issues particularly at scrum time.

If Toulouse focus too much on the South African / Castletroy resident, Peter O’Mahoney then comes into the equation. His performance for Ireland against England was nothing short of sensational. His form is peaking at the right time of the season. O’Mahoney’s option at lineout time also poses problems to a Toulouse pack who possess numerous options including the ever young Albacete, Maestri (whose temperament will need to be kept in check) and Gray.

The focus in the pack battle will center on the match referee: JP Doyle. Munster has at times had an uneasy time with Doyle in charge particularly in the breakdown and scrum. The scrum in particular will be huge on Saturday as Doyle’s officiating of the set piece in the recent Italy vs. Wales RBS game suggests that the official once he has made his mind up on who is infringing remains steadfast to that view. Both sides will look to kill game at the breakdown; Toulouse’s penalty count last weekend surely will provide Doyle with food for thought ahead of this fixture.

Munster’s age profile in the pack is less than their visitors and that could be crucial in the last quarter to see this game through. It is going to be an incredible battle. The back row battle intrigues me. Tekori is massively underrated; supreme ball carrier and tackler. His performance is an indication of how Toulouse are faring. If curtailed, Munster will have an excellent advantage; otherwise Toulouse and their monstrous pack will look to push on.

Back Line:

The two side’s back line units are full of pace and vigor. Munster’s squad depth in the back line has increased substantially this season with the emergence of Darren Sweetnam and the excellent form of Ronan O’Mahoney and Andrew Conway. This increased competition has only benefited the side and has kept the likes of Earls and Zebo on their toes.

Sweetnam has had an excellent breakout season. He has all the traits to become a world class back; his aerial ability (emanating from his GAA background) has proved invaluable for the likes of Murray in his box kick execution. Sweetnam’s ability to win aerial ball and ability to identify space with ball in hand has being a valuable asset to the team as opposition have had to change their point of defense allowing the likes of Zebo and Earls to maraud in the open field.

The center partnership of Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell has being rock solid. Taute’s power and defensive nous has complemented and allowed Scannell to grow and develop in the twelve position. Scannell’s kicking game has proved invaluable to Bleyendaal making excellent gains with superb touch finders. The added kicking option has allowed Munster to keep opposition off balance defensively.

Taute has being the standout transfer for Munster this term. The South African’s all action game has endeared himself to the Munster fan base and his solid defensive organization has improved those around him. When you consider that Francis Saili is on the bench, the squad bench at the three quarters is pretty on point. Saili’s impact off the bench with his ball carrying is a real asset; evident in his pivotal game winning try against the Warriors in the penultimate ERC pool round.

Toulouse’s back line experience is there for all to see. Medard, Huget, Fickou and Fritz flow off the tongue. These players ooze class and experience on how to win on the road, experience on what it takes to win at the business end of the season. Their ability to create scoring opportunities from anywhere is a warning shot for Munster; any loose kicks down the field will be punished. Medard is a gifted rugby player; elegant with ball in hand and able to turn a game in a matter of seconds. Fickou is the danger player of this Toulouse back line. Physicality but there is also searing pace with ball in hand evident in his try against Wales.

For Toulouse to prosper, Bezy and McAllister / Doussain will need to provide good fast early ball to their back line but recent performances have being disappointing; five losses in the last six games. The back line has suffered from lack of ball as the pack has struggled to gain parity in several games. Bordeaux Begles loss was a classic example; good moments but ultimately had to give second best to the hosts. The win to Lyon at home was emphatic; forty plus point score on the night and Munster has being warned that any defensive lapses will be gratefully taken by their visitors with the experience in the back line ranks.

Verdict:

The opening exchanges at set piece ultimately will form the story of this game. The scrum cannot be underestimated. Toulouse will look to target this early and plant the seeds of doubt into JP Doyle’s mind. Munster to a man need to stem the onslaught for the first quarter and build the platform thereafter.

Toulouse’s pack will be fierce but the key is tempo; move the pack around the park and defensive gaps will form. Munster with the passionate home support should get through based on their last quarter performance but Toulouse is due a big performance.

The ball carrying of Stander and O’Mahoney will be to the fore and defensive gaps will form in the Toulouse rearguard. The losses of recent weeks will serve as added motivation for Toulouse so Munster must be at their very best to advance to the semi-finals. Munster to win by seven points but it will be a tense, closely fought affair for at least sixty minutes of this contest.