The Irish Times

Clouds gather over Thomond Park and Munster can weather storm

- GERRY THORNLEY

A high-flying, big-name English team coming to Thomond Park on the kind of Saturday night when you wouldn’t put the cat out, and with the home team wounded and in must-win territory, is a dog-eared script. Not that you’d ever get bored with it.

In keeping with the setting, this will be old school. The forecast is so horrendous, with heavy rain and wind that the occasion will assuredly demand a juggernaut performanc­e from the Munster pack and expert kicking from their halves. A welcome big turnout at Thomond Park, no matter how drenched, will revel in this if Munster turn back the clock and rediscover traditiona­l virtues.

Rotated charges

Anthony Foley has again rotated his charges and, with one eye on that forecast, has gone for a pack with bulk. Robin Copeland has been switched to blindside to accommodat­e the return of CJ Stander with Dave O’Callaghan, a little surprising­ly, again preferred to Jack O’Donoghue at openside.

Also a little surprising­ly, Donnacha Ryan’s return comes at the expense of Mark Chisholm, who drops to a strong-looking bench which also features two more of their overseas’ contingent, Tyler Bleyendaal and Lucas Amorosino, as well as the fit-again Mike Sherry.

The return of Conor Murray, probably Munster’s most important player, no doubt to apply his “boring” kicking game is a huge boost, along with Ian Keatley, Andrew Conwaym Keith Earls and Francis Saili, who was signed with games like this in mind.

It’s a huge test of this remodelled Munster team in the post-Paul O’Connell era, and it’s hard not to feel that this reprise of the 2002 final will go some way toward defining their season.

Under new head coach Aaron Mauger, Leicester have broadened their game, keeping the ball in hand and playing more expansivel­y, although they have reserved their better form for Europe. Whereas they have scored 10 tries in winning five of six games in the English Premiershi­p, they have recorded bonus point wins over Stade Francais and Treviso, so victory here would open up a gap of eight points or more prior to welcoming Munster to Welford Road next Sunday.

Viewed in that light, Munster most certainly have to win to give themselves a realistic chance of qualifying. Whether or not they are still equipped to dominate sufficient­ly up front through their scrum, lineout, maul, close-in running game and breakdown work for Murray and Keatley to dictate the tempo and territory remains to be seen.

Greater speed

They assuredly have to come onto the ball at greater speed than has been the case lately, and come of their defensive line more aggressive­ly.

That, coupled with some early, aggressive hits will do as much as anything to bring the crowd into the game and if Munster are to win, reviving that old umbilical link between team and supporters will be key.

Leicester, of course, have won on their only visit here, when becoming the first side to beat Munster at their Thomond Park cauldron. But it’s also true to question Leicester. For all their more skilful and expansive approach, are as gnarled and grizzled as they used to be for occasions such as this?

It’s liable to be a raucous, old-school arm wrestle, with plenty of stoppages (all the more so with Romain Poite in charge). It will come down to desire as well as accuracy in retaining possession. It should be right up Munster’s street, and both Munster and Irish rugby needs one of their epic wins, however it comes.

It won’t be pretty, but winning ugly would do fine.

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