The waiting is almost over. A place in the last four of the Heineken Champions Cup is the prize for Edinburgh Rugby and Munster Rugby tomorrow at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick identifies the five areas which could be potentially decisive in the outcome of this contest.
The early scrum exchanges tomorrow are going to be immense; an early platform for either side could be the difference between victory or defeat. Edinburgh Rugby’s front row at scrum time in the pool stages looked incredibly strong. Schoeman and Nel in particular providing their side with excellent attacking platform with penalty winning cameos in this set piece. Their performance against Montpellier in the final round of the pool was nothing short of fantastic; set the platform with scrum dominance and their all round play was sensational so much so that Nel was trying trick shot passes to Bill Mata.
Munster Rugby to have any chance in this contest must be strong and organized in the scrum particularly in the opening period. The scrum to be fair for the Irish province has been a key asset this season but this Edinburgh Rugby front row represent a significant challenge. A challenge that John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne should relish. Pascal Gauzere tends not to wait too long before making a decision at scrum time so both sides will be keen to get an early foothold early.
Back Row Unit Explosion
The back row units tomorrow for this contest could be the story of the game. In a game of high octane intensity, the breakdown and ball carrying from either unit will be vital.
Both sides possess match winners in abundance. Edinburgh Rugby welcome back the experience and guile of John Barclay to complement the likes of Bill Mata and Hamish Watson who are destructive with ball in hand. Barclay will look to slow down Munster Rugby ball, get in the face of Conor Murray at ruck time and look to unsettle.
Bill Mata has been a revelation this season with ball in hand. His ball carrying / meters gained statistics are through the roof. Munster Rugby’s back row will be fully aware of Mata’s potency with ball in hand, will look to protect Joey Carbery in the ten channel. The intriguing part tomorrow is whether Munster Rugby isolate Mata in defensive situations; Edinburgh Rugby allow Mata to drift off and reserve energy for ball carrying. You will see him at times out on the wing when opposition is building the phases. Munster Rugby need to identify the mismatch on Mata to create the ultimate dividend.
Munster Rugby’s back row unit looks to have mobility, abrasiveness and breakdown nous to compete in this fixture. The emergence of Jack O’Donoghue is a huge boost; his high octane performance last week will be required again this week in the tackle count and breakdown battle to allow Peter O’Mahony the time to pinch ball at regular intervals. CJ Stander at eight needs to impose his authority on the game early; look to ask probing question of Mata in his tackling / defensive work which at times can be wild.
Munster Rugby Cohesion Issues
Heading into this fixture, I am a bit worried on the attacking cohesion of Munster Rugby. The face that Joey Carbery has not played since playing a key cameo in Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations victory over Scotland in February is a concern. The cohesion between colleagues and half back partner Conor Murray will be exposed if it is off.
The attacking lines from Munster Rugby at times this season have been at times one dimensional. Exeter Chiefs kicking and high press game stifled Munster Rugby creativity in their final pool game decider at Thomond Park so it will be interesting if Edinburgh look to deploy the same tactic this weekend.
If Carbery and Murray have a platform to create then Munster Rugby have a serious chance of progression tomorrow.
Back Three Aerial Battle
This is an intriguing part of the fixture. Haley, Conway and Earls vs. Graham, Hoyland and van der Merwe. The aerial exchanges against both sides back three units is going to be intense in the opening period. Will Edinburgh Rugby be unsettled by the absence of Blair Kinghorn in the ranks?
Graham is a superb, elusive winger but a serious test awaits the player against Munster Rugby in the full back position. Any hesitancy will be exploited again and again building platform for the Irish province. The attacking ability of the Edinburgh back three is excellent with Duhan van der Merwe a potential match winner with his lightning pace and physicality with ball in hand.
Munster Rugby have experience in the back three unit. Haley is proving to be an astute piece of business for the province with his cameos this season. His role tomorrow will be to remain solid under the dropping ball and look to hit the line at speed to link up with Earls or Conway who have shown their skill set at regular intervals this season.
The attacking threat from both back threes is beyond question but the ability to provide defensive assurance under the high dropping ball tomorrow will be the money shot tomorrow.
Both subs benches in the third quarter could play pivotal roles. There is experience aplenty in Edinburgh’s reserves with the likes of Ford, Hickey, Dell, Berghan waiting to make a vital game winning cameo. Munster Rugby have experience in the ranks with Billy Holland, Stephen Archer, Alby Mathewson and Tyler Bleyendaal all capable of providing key contributions.
Unless someone strikes the front early with a devastating opening salvo, this game for me looks like it will go down to the wire. Game management, composure and experience will be asked and answers will be required from the bench. Both sides are evenly matched on the bench.
50/50 game for me and it is the toughest one of the quarter finals to call. Slight edge to Munster Rugby based on the Edinburgh Rugby back three reshuffle; exposed potentially in defensive situations tomorrow but the Irish province will have to be to deliver their best performance of the season to get this result. Any sloppy, cohesion issues from Munster Rugby and they will be eliminated.