Guinness PRO12: Three reasons why Munster can win the title
Paul O'Connell, plenty of breakdown menaces, and never say attitude key to Anthony Foley men claiming a fourth championship
Paul O’Connell. The talisman lock in the semi-final against Ospreys was immense, leading by example and literally inspiring his team-mates to a massive result; a victory that will give them the opportunity to play the first final in four years time, and with a great chance to lift the trophy too. He may be set to leave Munster after a life-serving career at the end of this season, but O’Connell could follow in the footsteps of Brian O’Driscoll, another Irish giant of the recent era, to bow out with an RBS 6 Nations triumph before winning the PRO12 final. He was magnificent during that championship and one of the protagonists of the historic Irish back-to-back win. Tomorrow, before likely becoming one of the new “Galacticos” of European champions Toulon, he’ll be called to the last battle with the Red Army. He might not be the captain on paper, as he is for Ireland, but his contribution to the team and the huge amount of respect he gained during these years make him not only the leader but one of the few living legends of the modern era. He’s been there, through the bad and the good times, and tomorrow PRO12 supporters in Belfast will witness him pulling on the red shirt for the last time, before inevitably deploying some trademark “ball up the jumper and follow me, lads” action.
Glasgow Warriors showed against Ulster last Friday that, when put under pressure at the breakdown, they can start panic and give penalties away. On the contrary, if the Weegies can express themselves exploiting the spaces left out wide they are a formidable team and one of the worst opponents you would like to meet in a final. Ulster chose to put a lot of players at the breakdown and put the Warriors under massive pressure, but they struggled far too much the two times the Warriors managed to build through the phases. If Munster want to put the opponents into troubles, they need to start the game at a high pace and play at every breakdown, in every ruck like their lives depended on it. Turnovers will be key. Against the Ospreys last Saturday they showed, contrary to what Ulster did, they don’t need to commit too many players to the ruck to be effective and winning turnover ball. Munster were great in the execution of their set-pieces too – another aspect that can put them on the front foot and, talking of foot, the Red Army really need a more inspired Ian Keatley tomorrow to try and take every single opportunity the forwards create to get the scoreboard ticking over.
Stand up and fight
Conor Murray played just 16 minutes last Saturday before leaving the pitch injured, but Duncan Williams was able to keep the Munster game flowing at the same pace and rhythm. Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar created a lot of problems for the Warriors in the first of half at the Scotstoun with his fast recycles from the scrum and his great ability to choose, at the right time, to give the ball to a forward or, deeper, to one of his backs. Murray, if available, can really make the difference with his vision and his capacity to read the game. To beat the Warriors, you must be ferocious in defence and ruthless in attack, possibly being able to convert defence into attack in a blink of an eye. Players like Simon Zebo, who also picked up an injury last week, has this potential, players like PRO12 Dream Team member CJ Stander knows how to break a defence, how to carry a ball for meters and create mismatches. On the other side, Munster must keep their discipline under control and reduce the risk of giving away easy penalties. So, pressure with measure at the breakdown, pressure in the line-outs – they might even opt for non-contesting them and focus only on stopping the potentially disruptive rolling maul. Paul O’Connell here will have a key role. His team-mates have already made clear several times that they will follow him, but if they are to have a chance to beat the Warriors, they really have to “stand up and fight until you hear the bell”.