This weekend’s Pro12 semi-final feels a little like the barbeque the day after the wedding. The abrupt halt of the Rocky story that was this season’s European campaign against Saracens has left a bit of a hangover in its wake – and why wouldn’t it? A comprehensive loss to a powerful Saracens team would let the air out of any balloon, with only the fact that they went on to win the tournament the only ointment to the burn. It doesn’t matter that no one in their right mind would have had Munster in a semi-final this season, the hurt is palpable.
And that’s good. If there’s no hurt, you don’t care.
But, to be honest, fuck the hurt. There’s a semi-final to be won.
Learning From The Best
If Saracens thought us anything, it will be the importance of managing our energy. The dynamics of a home semi-final are difficult to manage in one way because as the home side, you’re expected to dictate terms to the visitors. Munster certainly did that against Saracens in the Aviva in the first 20 minutes and, were the opposition anyone else, Munster would probably have scored at least one try. Maybe more.
But probably is worthless. In the end, Munster burned a lot of mental and physical energy for little tangible reward.
What’s the lesson? Games are, for the most part, won in the last quarter and when 60 minutes flashes up, you should still have cards to play. And then ruthlessness, ruthlessness, ruthlessness.
The best teams only give you one or two openings to hurt them. If you don’t take them, they’ll just punish you – as Saracens did. If Munster apply this lesson to Saturday, the right result should come.
Nothing To Lose
Forget Ospreys’ manky form. Yes, they’ve lost their last three away games, yes they looked horrible against Scarlets, and yes, Munster have beaten them twice already this season. This is a one off game that Ospreys will more than fancy their chances in.
They’ll have Alun Wyn Jones back from shoulder injury. Dan Biggar should be fit. If both play, they’ll have four Lions playing for them including Webb and Tipuric. So don’t let their horrible recent form fool you. Ospreys are no mugs.
Munster are favourites for this, of course, but if we’re even slightly undercooked Ospreys have the personnel to cause us huge problems. They have nothing to lose here. And any opponent with nothing to lose is dangerous.
Until you break them, that is.
Under The Wheel
The opening 20 minutes of Munster’s game against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium is the most stressed our defence has been all season and I include the Saracens game in that. For around 22 minutes, Ospreys tore Munster to shreds, inspired by a remarkable performance on the gain line from Sam Davies at 10. They scored two tries and could have had two more.
Ultimately, that 20 minute burst took more out of Ospreys than it did Munster and we slowly crawled back into the game.
Have Munster seen the best that Ospreys can wield in attack? If Biggar plays, how fit is he? The same could be asked of Jones. If Ospreys play deeper behind the gain line it will play right into Munster’s hands, so their set up will be interesting. They’ll look to kick over the top of Munster’s line, especially on set piece ball (as Scarlets did so successfully), but Munster have added a few filips to their defensive structure to mitigate against that tactic since then. You’d imagine that Munster’s comfort level in this game depends on how well this key tactical battle goes.
Munster will look to kick quite a bit you’d imagine, but with caution. The likes of Giles can be vulnerable under the high ball but lethal with anything kicked even 5m too far. Sweetnam/Conway/Earls can be hugely effective in that scenario, especially with accurate bombs from Murray.
I think Munster can win this one in a number of ways but there has to be one key change from the Saracens match – less conservatism. With Stander fit from the start, and Jean Deysel/Jack O’Donoghue coming off the bench, we should have a ball carrying advantage. If we use the space this generate more effectively than we did against Sarries, we will win.
Accuracy will do it. Inventiveness. Cleverness. But let’s not forget brutality, either. Good old brutality will do the job just fine too.
Ultimately, Munster have to get AWJ, Webb, Tipuric and Biggar thinking about the Lions plane as soon as possible. We’ll do that by keeping the scoreboard running early and by punishing Ospreys on every carry, ever drive, every scrum. As Paul O’Connell used to say – “we go out there now and make ’em pay”.
This is Thomond Park. This is a semi-final. Someone’s going to pay and when Munster fire, no one can pay that toll.