Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup: Munster keep grinding on but best is still to come

By David Kelly

Little wonder there were much mixed emotions emanating from Thomond Park — and not just from the home dressing-room.

Denied their perennial knockout berth in their favourite competition last term, surely the Munster folk and players would be cock-a-hoop at their unbeaten start in Heineken Cup fare this season?

And yet, despite a 4-0 run that emulates their opening quartet of fixtures in 2006/07, when they first defended the title, enthusiasm jousted with pessimism amidst the post-mortems.

As someone else noted, Munster probably played a tad better at this time last year yet failed to make the last eight; amidst a period of generally acknowledged transition and uncertain play, 12 months on they are well primed to resume their habitual quarter-final residence.

But as the calculators were whipped out to prognosticate their team's fate in rounds five and six, it seems that some were primarily more eager to ascertain permutations that would not see Munster qualify, as opposed to how they might get through to the knockout stages.

Securing a five-pointer against Top 14-chasing Castres in round five at Thomond Park is the minimum requirement; the French side rolled over and had their collective bellies tickled in Franklin's Gardens on Sunday so that shouldn't be a problem.

But then you look at Munster's inordinate difficulty with scoring tries; back three injuries haven't helped but there is also a more pertinent issue, with criticism of the team's attacking coach, Jason Holland, continuing to rain down from the stands.

The players must assume some blame too, though; when Munster attempted to hammer home their superiority in the third quarter, a 17-phase attack included dumb, heads-down lunges from Keith Earls (pictured) and Lifeimi Mafi.

“Our attack wasn't as good as we would have liked it to have been,” conceded Damian Varley. “We felt we were defending in a lot of the game and at times very passively.

“We want to improve there and also get our attack structure a bit better to hammer home games.” Had they managed that, Sunday's denouement would have been far less fretful than it needed to be.

“Some days things come very easily, some days they don't and Sunday was one of those,” agreed Denis Hurley.

Munster may still be able to sneak from their final pool game with Northampton with just a losing bonus point.

Again, that was the predominant view of sceptical locals.

Still, one of the other positives from Sunday's outing was the seamless reintroduction of Earls for the first time since damaging his knee in the opening minute of November's clash with Leinster at Lansdowne Road.

Given how expertly Munster have blended an infusion of new players with a winning habit, a win in Northampton may not be beyond them, a result that would propel them into the top four seeds who earn home ties.

Mind you, offered this position 12 months ago, Munster would have bitten your hand off.

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