Easter Weekend. It is decision day for Munster Rugby and Toulon in their quest to secure an European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final berth. Sold out Thomond Park. Limerick is a buzz with excitement for this fixture given the personnel that Toulon have in their squad. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints a couple of major talking points ahead of this game.
Emotion needs to be kept in check by Munster
The early week news conference given by Johann van Graan was interesting to say the least. The typical sound bites of respecting the opposition were uttered but not before van Graan proclaimed ”You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning’. His eyes welling up when he uttered those words.
Emotion is something that needs to be held on tap during game week; preparation needs to be on point, tactics and personnel responsibilities assigned and executed well on the training paddock. Munster Rugby have being guilty of leaving performances in the locker room last season when emotive talk was uttered.
I am thinking in terms of the Saracens European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final and the Guinness Pro 12 final with Scarlets last season where Munster Rugby where the performance was flat and one dimensional. Talks of emotive speeches before hand was a trend.
The head coach needs to lead by example, clinical and meticulous in preparation. It is a huge game for van Graan; his first playoff contest as Munster Rugby head coach. The press conference during the week emphasized as much and emotion needs to be used at the right time when appropriate.
Many people have pointed to their performance last weekend against ASM Clermont. Toulon to their credit were excellent, a 49-0 shutout win over a Clermont side whose tackle completion statistic of 67% spoke volumes. Toulon benefited from a visiting side whose pack failed to assert any platform and the team who were second best throughout.
Clermont’s defensive display bordered on embarrassing at times and one would hope that Munster Rugby will produce a better performance without the ball with excellent defensive line speed, competitive breakdown work as well as hitting first time tackles.
There are threats throughout this Toulon side. The front five pack a massive punch and their attacking line outs and mauls will look to test their Munster Rugby’s counterparts and exploits gaps in the fringes. Bastareaud is the attacking fulcrum where all good things come. The center was prominent in last weekend’s blowout win, offloading at regular intervals, assists for Ashton and Fekitoa tries.
Fekitoa with ball in hand is an explosive ball carrier and Munster Rugby’s defensive shape and organization will need to be on point this weekend. Massive threats all over the park and I have not even mentioned the likes of Isa and Lobbe in the engine room of the pack. Nonu could also feature in the three quarters. The squad assembled is immense. Belleau or Trinh Duc for the ten jersey. Intriguing selections beckon for Fabien Galthie.
Munster injury concerns
Ireland’s success in the Natwest 6 Nations tournament has come at a price for Munster Rugby. The back line squad depth is being tested to its limits. Chris Farrell and Keith Earls are unavailable due to injury. There are doubts on the fitness of Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway ahead of this contest along with Rory Scannell who is following return to play protocol.
Munster Rugby potentially may need to summon several young players to get over the line this weekend. Alex Wooton has had an excellent breakout season, prominent in the Scarlets Pro 14 home win last weekend. His performances in European Cup games this season when featured has being on point. Sam Arnold at thirteen has a massive task this weekend; attempt to nullify Bastareaud while providing pace and mobility to create line breaks. Arnold’s pace on the outside potentially could cause Toulon massive issues. The players who will feature will not let the side down.
It is imperative that Rory Scannell features in this contest. His versatility and kicking game in open play will provide an added dimension to Munster’s attacking play. Scannell has the potential to keep Toulon’s midfield off balance with his game management and kicking game to unleash Sam Arnold at thirteen.
Munster Seven Jersey Conundrum
The pack will be along familiar lines with the big question is who will fill the seven jersey. Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell are sidelined with injury and it opens the door for the likes of Robin Copeland, Dave O’Callaghan or Conor Oliver to contribute from the start.
Copeland is in terrific form at present; his man of the match performance against Scarlets last weekendmust have the Wexford man in a strong position to start. Oliver could be the dark horse selection, grapples well at the breakdown and his mobility to support the ball carrier a huge plus. Dave O’Callaghan brings utter physicality on both sides of the ball.
Effective Kicking Game
This is going to be so crucial to decide who wins this contest. Munster Rugby’s kicking game last weekend was incredibly poor in the opening period, a repeat and Toulon could do serious damage. Conor Murray will be a significant upside to this facet of play for Munster Rugby, his kicking game will allow Munster to test the Toulon back three.
Chris Ashton at full back could be exposed at precise times by Murray and Keatley during this contest. The Toulon back three on paper are sensational with ball in hand but questions defensively are there to be exploited. Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. Will they look to execute a kicking game or attempt to run the ball using their pack? Munster Rugby to win need to dominate this facet of play. A clash of styles beckon!