Former Munster and Leicester Tigers player looks ahead to the Champions Cup quarter-finals
Champions Cup weekend roles in quick and fast after what was a bruising Six Nations both mentally and physically for players and supporters alike! Two home quarters lie ahead and everyone is tuned up and ready to go.
Preparation for Leinster and Munster has been very different this week. A lot of certainty in the Leinster camp with the coaching ticket extending deals into 2019. In contrast to Munster where there is speculation about Rassie Erasmus’s future but also the Donnacha Ryan exit being the main talking point of the week.
Conor Murray’s fitness battle even took a back seat with all these goings on which has probably helped him just concentrate on getting fit and being on the pitch tomorrow.
Leinster are facing an in-form Wasps side that has game breakers littered across the field. They have scored the most tries in Aviva Premiership with 73 and the second most in the Champions Cup with 28. A total of 101 tries over their domestic league and European competitions.
Marshalling them at 10 is the enigma that is Danny Cipriani. On his day he is arguably one of the most talented out-halves in the world. His on-field relationship with Kurtley Beale is outstanding. They control both sides of the ruck in attack, always having options to spread the ball to either wing. They both possess a spark that can be ignited at any stage in the game and from any position on the pitch.
Leinster are in a fine vain of form themselves and sit on top of the PRO12. They have scored a total of 79 tries domestically and also lead Wasps in the try scoring charts in the Champions Cup with 31. They are the leading try scorers across all domestic and European competitions sitting on total of 110, ahead of Wasps by 9. Hopefully these stats lead to a cracker in the Aviva on Saturday.
For me, I think that it will be two things that decide this game. Defence and the impact of the bench. The bench is going to play big role and this, for me, is where Leinster have the edge. The experience of Cian Healy, Zane Kirchner and Fergus McFadden coming off the bench should just sway it Leinster’s way in a high-scoring one-score game.
Leinster’s Cian Healy. Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Thomond Park hosts two teams that are historically embedded in this competition. Both with contrasting veins of form. Munster sit second in the PRO12 with only their only slip-up in recent months being that home defeat to the Scarlets.
Toulouse on the other hand sit fifth from bottom in the Top 14 but even more relevant is their away form that has only brought about three wins in all competitions this season. Something seems to be amiss with a team that has such incredible talent in the squad when it comes to away games.
People might argue that the Thomond Park effect has slightly wavered over the years and this might be the case for PRO12 games but certainly not for Champions Cup ties.
The history and storylines attached to these two clubs in this competition adds hugely to this fixture. The last time Toulouse rolled into Limerick they were shown the gate very quickly in game the turned into a rout. Toulouse still have a number players in their ranks that played that day and this will be at the backs of their minds if the game gets away from them early.
Munster's Keith Earls scores a try despite Maxime Médard of Toulouse. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Conor Murray being fit gives Munster a huge lift. He is the fulcrum to a lot of what Munster have got right this season. Himself and Bleyendaal are really controlling games together. Controlling the tempo, raising it when it needs to be raised but also slowing it down when needs be.
Their kicking game has been exceptional all year and giving them footholds in games. Even more so has shifted momentum their way in games, especially with their attack kicking strategy.
No team in Europe is at the same level in winning balls in the air going forward as Munster. This is something Felix Jones has ingrained in all his backs. Those momentum shifts have a lot more influence on games than people realise. It gives everyone in the team a surge of energy that can prove vital in determining the outcome of a game.
Munster need to start well, put the Toulouse back three under pressure, get Sweetnam, Zebo and Earls in the air winning those battles. The crowd will row in behind these energy surges and Toulouse will start to doubt themselves. If Munster let Toulouse cruise and get to the last 10 minutes within a score they will start to believe.
It's going to be another incredible occasion in Thomond Park where I think Munster will come out on top by more that a converted try. These are the days you wise you were still out there!