Belfast Telegraph

Erasmus shackles still holding Reds back but Hanrahan has keys to unlock them

Paris match: JJ Hanrahan and Conor Murray will need to be at their best tomorrow for Munster against Racing
Paris match: JJ Hanrahan and Conor Murray will need to be at their best tomorrow for Munster against Racing

By Alan Quinlan

The statistics make for grim reading: two wins from seven, 100 fewer points scored in their first 10 PRO14 outings than last season, and more carries than any other team in the Champions Cup yet tied for the least amount of tries scored - with seven - after four games.

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It doesn't exactly prop up the party line that Munster's attack is flourishing after expert renovation.

The noises around this Munster squad have been positive, the new coaching ticket in particular have been singled out for praise, and this isn't just from the players in their robotic post-match interview mode, this is a common tale being shared by those close to the camp across the province.

There are a number of mitigating factors to consider around this slump too; World Cup disruption, injuries to key men and player-welfare protocols have acted as speed bumps in the first half of Munster's season.

Leinster have the depth to cope with injuries to key figures; they can even get by when some of their leading lights fail to shine on the field. In Munster's case, when their world-class operators - a seemingly much rarer breed in the south of Ireland these days - are not close to their best, they have little hope of toppling a European giant.

We haven't seen Conor Murray or Peter O'Mahony affect games with the authority that we have come to expect, but this isn't just about them, or Keith Earls, or CJ Stander.

The problem at Munster, highlighted so starkly last week under Belfast's Friday night lights, is a collective one.

You can have grand plans for expansion and attacking innovation, but those blueprints become worthless if you cannot get the basics right.

You have to at least gain parity in the close exchanges on a rugby field if you want to do damage out wide, and Munster have simply been losing too many collisions of late.

Shorn of Stander, Jean Kleyn and Chris Farrell, Munster's ballast was always going to be tested against Ulster. But the manner of their demise, after a relatively positive start, was startling.

Iron Mike's words of wisdom came to mind as Munster lost their shape and reverted to old habits, Ulster landing the proverbial punch in the mouth and the men in red returning to Rassie Erasmus rugby, an approach that served the province well but one that came up short at the business end of the season time and again.

Erasmus is long gone, now a World Cup-winning coach, but the shackles of his game-plan have still not been completely cast aside. It's a tactical approach that no longer suits this squad of players; this is not a pack that will run over the best forward units in Europe.

When you're rattled on the rugby pitch, clarity of thought can be difficult. Your lungs are burning, your mind is racing, your head is dropping; you lean on your instincts, honed over years of playing, to get you through. When those instincts no longer align with the team's strategy, you're going to have serious problems.

To my mind, Munster are having teething issues under this new regime, naturally enough considering the scale of change being implemented by Johann van Graan, Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree.

There is no doubt either that the calibre of opposition for the previous seven games, four of those coming against three of the leading contenders to win the Champions Cup, skews the run of results somewhat.

The major concern now is they are heading to La Defense Arena - one of Europe's most unforgiving venues for misfiring attacks - for a shoot-out against the game's top gunslingers with weapons they haven't yet figured out how to use.

Tomorrow, everything has to run smoother than it has for some time. You need to be aggressive in defence against Racing, that's how you rattle Teddy Thomas, Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa; we've seen all three play the tragic hero before, but you have to make them uncomfortable if you want to expose the cracks.

Munster fans will be watching in hope more than anything, but the fitness of JJ Hanrahan, someone who should relish the zip of the artificial pitch, assuming his hamstring is truly able for it, does soften the blow of Joey Carbery's latest setback.

Hanrahan and his opposite number Russell speak the same rugby language; risk-takers who play what they see. This fly-half duel could evolve into anything, but it certainly won't be dull.

The capricious Kerryman is well suited to running Munster's backline at the futuristic Paris venue; a visionary who sees space and, crucially, someone who can put those around him into it.

He has been more consistent this season, and having worn No 10 for three of the four Champions Cup outings to date he should be brimming with confidence, something that hasn't always been the case for the 27-year-old.

Munster have created space against quality opposition in recent weeks but they have failed to exploit it. Hanrahan needs to inject variety into the attack and get Farrell involved where possible.

Between them, and alongside Murray, they will need to unlock the space that Earls, Andrew Conway and Mike Haley need to do damage out wide.

Murray must set the tempo from the base of the ruck. If Munster are to have any hope tomorrow they will need their leaders to push them relentlessly towards another famous European performance. O'Mahony will need to produce a couple of big moments at the breakdown and in the lineout too.

As ever, though, Hanrahan's ability to unlock Racing's defence will be futile if Munster don't win their fair share of collisions.

The attitude from the off must be belligerent and merciless. Anything less and Van Graan's men will be out for the count.

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