YOU DIDN’T HAVE to be in Kingsholm to see the early battle lines being drawn deep in the sand.
In fact, it may well have been best experience on a screen in the comfort of your own home. A safe distance combined with the close-up view of Peter O’Mahony’s early tangle with Franco Mostert had the feel of a cinematic epic as the opposite numbers engaged in a verbal joust from their respective positions on flank of a scrum.
After staring one another down, O’Mahony celebrated the penalty win at the set-piece with a guttural roar and a clenched fist of intent aimed at the South African.
Before Joey Carbery could cut loose, the foundation for his work came thanks to Munster’s pack hitting their mark and emotional pitch required for a very physical encounter.
Johann van Graan says O’Mahony is 50-50 to line up against Exeter this weekend and the captain moved freely enough around Munster’s UL base yesterday, but it will be a surprise if discomfort of his rib cartilage injury clears within eight days.
“We have to decide that they are going to go there and stand up and not back down, physically or emotionally,” said Rob Baxter after his side beat Castres to set up a grand finale in Pool 2.
The Premiership leaders will have the intensity dialled all the way up in search of an unlikely pool win and a landmark European quarter-final. Munster will most likely have to get back to their peak passion without their fearless leader on the field, while also sustaining the clinical streak that served them so well in Galway and Gloucester.
O’Mahony celebrates Rory Scannell’s try in Kingsholm. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I think it comes from deep within,” says Van Graan, when asked where Munster dig their drive, an ‘emotional energy’ from.
“You just have to drive around town, see boys in the street playing rugby and not football, and see the red flags.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, once you are a part of Munster you are always a part of Munster.
“Games like this are why we play this game. You might win or you might lose, but one thing I can guarantee is the effort is for the people of Munster is the most important thing.
“And that is why you have to improve your game because you can’t always count on emotion. That’s why I say I would like to think we have improved our game so we are going to use the emotion but we also have to play well to beat a quality team like Exeter.”
Van Graan was happy to reel off names of players who could fill the physical void on Saturday if O’Mahony doesn’t pull through in time. Fineen Wycherley played blindside in a win over Leinster that was nothing if not fiery and has been in terrific form this season. Tadhg Beirne, Tommy O’Donnell, Chris Cloete, Arno Botha and of course CJ Stander are also options to wear the number 6 jersey if Van Graan shuffles the pack around.
“We have a lot of options. The most important thing is to find out how Pete is first and then look at our options and we’ll make a call on Thursday.
Fineen Wycherley at training yesterday in UL Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
“I know we thrive on the big occasion and big games. We love to play at Thomond Park and we’ve got a quality squad.
“Pete’s been involved in most of the big games for the last two years. He wasn’t involved, starting against Leinster – he was involved as a water carrier.
“If it comes to that over the weekend, we’re a team who believes in the squad. I’ve said from day one, in all competitions you’re going to gain some guys and you’ll lose some guys.
“If he doesn’t play it will be a loss for the team, but I thought CJ did really well as captain against Leinster and I thought Fineen Wycherley had an excellent day.”
Stander is a talismanic figure no matter what role or position he is given. His carrying style means he will always lead by example, but Van Graan backed his captaincy yesterday while highlighting his work off the ball in defence and attack.
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“I think where he has improved is, he is not only in his carrying from nine, not only carrying in channel one, there is width in his game and the decisions that he makes, one of the things that he doesn’t get a lot of credit for is his defence.
“In the lead up to some of our tries you have just got to look what he does off the ball. He is a true professional and it is great to have him at Munster.”
Jaco Taute at Munster training in UL. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Aside from O’Mahony, Van Graan’s medical team have no major injury worries ahead of the Pool 2 decider. Chris Farrell came through another 80 minutes despite concerns over his knee last week and his formidable presence will again be an important part of Munster’s attacking game. In defence, O’Mahony’s breakdown threat would be a huge miss as Exeter revel in extended periods of possession, sets which so often sap energy from teams.
“I can tell you, they are the best at that. Statistically, they do keep the ball the best in Europe and they do keep it for the longest,” says the South African.
“So your discipline has got to be key and you’ve got to adapt to the referee and we’ve got the same referee we had the previous time against Exeter, Jerome Garces, one of the best referees in the world and both teams will have to adapt to him.
Tadhg Beirne’s breakdown threat will be key for Munster against the Chiefs. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
“I think all the games that I’ve seen against Exeter, you get your opportunities and you’ve got to use them. I think we’ve used our opportunities in the last three weeks and I think we’ve converted.”
After three tough weeks with frontliners rarely far from the field, those sapping bouts of pressure could prove telling. Van Graan is not worried about fatigue in his ranks. That, he feels, will be warded off by the need for one last push before the current group disbands until after the Six Nations and also competition for places in a squad with a low injury toll.
“There’s 47 guys who sat here this morning that all want to be picked for the weekend,” he says.
“I think we have planned well over the last four or five months to make sure that we peak for these last two games in Europe, because after this, I said to the team this morning, the next time we see each other together as a group is at the end of March and that’s a long way down the line.
“So whoever gets selected at the weekend will give it their all, and that’s what you want, round six in Europe. As a player you want to play in games likes these.”
For games like these, watching from the couch doesn’t quite cut it.
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