Munster on the brink of qualifying as they destroy French Champions in Paris
By Phil Rice
Last weekend Munster finally got to play the match which was postponed due to the tragic death of Anthony Foley. Not surprisingly it was an emotional day for the team and it’s devoted supporters.
The stands at the State Yves-du-Manoir were bathed in red as hundreds of Munster supporters returned to Paris for unfinished business. From the first minute Munster left nobody in any doubt about their intent.
As ‘old boy’ Ronan O’Gara said afterwards, “That was serious cup rugby out there. They were better than us in every aspect.”
The Munster pack dominated from the outset and ran up 32 unanswered points before taking their foot off the pedal somewhat and Racing scored a consolation try. Racing may have already lost interest in this year’s competition but they still fielded a quality team of international stars.
They are the reigning French Champions and were runners up in last year’s European Champions Cup. But they had no answer to Munster’s all-round supremacy. There was a ruthlessness that has been lacking in Munster’s game in recent seasons, that was reminiscent of the dominant team of the mid 2000’s.
Scrums and line-outs were controlled by the men in red, allowing the maturing Tyler Beyendaal to dictate proceedings from fly-half.
Munster lead their pool by three points, but this weekend face a real challenge in the shape of Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun. They destroyed the Scots in the first match after Foley’s untimely death. That was a one-off game in which Glasgow were blown away in a tidal wave of emotion at Thomond Park. Even the early sending off of Keith Earls wasn’t going to stop Munster fulfilling their destiny that day.
Saturday will be different and Glasgow have been performing well of late and have a real chance of qualifying themselves.
Munster know that even a losing bonus point would probably be enough to qualify them as their remaining qualifying match will be against Racing at a packed Thomond Park. After last Saturday there won’t be too many Frenchmen putting up their hands to play in that match.
Glasgow need to beat Munster to have any chance of progressing to the knock out stages and for that reason this week’s match is likely to be fiercely contested. The key to the match will be the battle up front where Munster have been improving with every game. Donnacha Ryan is playing the best rugby of his life. No longer in the shadow of Paul O’Connell he has begun to assume a real leadership role up front.
The back row is one of the finest in European club rugby with Peter O’Mahony back to his best and Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander playing superbly.
The front row is probably stronger than it’s counterpart in the great team of the mid 2000’s. Niall Scannell has developed into an outstanding hooker with boundless energy. They have the luxury of bringing on Dave Kilcoyne from the bench in the second half, and his destructive running has been a powerful weapon in the latter stages of matches.
Munster will be aiming to be seeded in the quarterfinals and nobody will relish the prospect of taking them on in front of a partisan Thomond Park crowd. Leinster too will be looking to be seeded for the final stages of the competition. They play Montpellier at the RDS this Friday. The French team narrowly beat Leinster in their first match in France.
Since then Leinster have been in superb form and scored 70 points against the hapless Zebre last weekend. Johnny Sexton played for the first half of that match and will start this weekend. Garry Ringrose is improving with every outing and Rory O’Loughlin has been a real find on the left wing. He has scored five tries in the last two matches.
Connacht will be expected to brush aside the challenge of Zebre in Galway at the weekend and their future in the competition will be decided in their final crucial away fixture in Toulouse.
Ulster have been inconsistent of late and even a win at Exeter this weekend, no easy task in itself, may not prove to be enough for them to qualify for the latter stages.
The penultimate weekend of European Cup rugby is usually an exciting if nervous time for the clubs, but the Irish sides are in far better fettle this year than they were last season. It would be a major surprise if at least two of them were not battling it out in the final stages of this years competition.