Munster aim to build on Toulon win with another Thomond thriller against Northampton

Denis Leamy highlights John Hodnett’s Ireland credentials

If it’s the last round of Champions Cup pool matches and a dark, misty winter’s Saturday night in January, then it must be an Irish-Anglo showdown in Thomond Park.

Munster’s commendable bonus-point win in Toulon last Saturday has for once removed the anticipated element of jeopardy around their progress, as barring a freakish set of results Graham Rowntree’s side are as good as through to the round of 16.

In order to secure a home tie in that round, they would need to beat Northampton with a bonus point and hope that Exeter emerge with no match points from their game in Bayonne on Sunday evening. It’s an unlikely scenario, but either way the shoot-out between URC champions and the leaders of both the Premiership and Pool 3 has the makings of a customary Thomond epic.,Buoyed by that win in Toulon, with almost 23,000 tickets sold, the tie is on course to be a sell-out.

“We’re very, very hopeful that we could fill it out,” said defence coach Denis Leamy of a prospect that would heighten the game’s importance.


“It’s obviously a game with consequences to it; a lot to play for, and it’s a big game for them as well. We need points, they need points, there’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybe scenarios that can play out. It’s cup rugby, both teams want to win the game and they’re quality.

“They’re a properly good side, an English team coming to Thomond Park, top of the Premiership. At the moment, they look a million dollars. It would be great to get a full crowd and to really get in amongst them and create a bit of a battle and atmosphere.”

To back up that fine victory in the Stade Félix Mayol by beating the Premiership leaders would also send Munster into the knockout stages in good order.

“What we did last week was very good. You’d be very disappointed if we didn’t back that up again. The boys are excited, you can feel the bouncing and the energy today.”

Munster have scored some wonderful tries this season, and understandably their attack again drew the plaudits in Toulon. But as important was the defensive work, especially in that opening 25 minutes.

“We were under the pump. I’ve been down there as a player and sometimes in the first 30 minutes against French teams they play so fast and so energetic that they blow you off the park. You’re almost trying to control the scoreboard after that and limit the damage, but we managed to keep them to 10 points.”

Mindful of Toulon’s Polynesian-infused power, Leamy was particularly pleased with his players’ work in contact, be it ripping steals or poaching, and although their missed tackle count was high, he said: “We’re a line-speed pressure team. We’re not about sitting on the line, keeping our integrity and making tackles. Even though we may have fallen off a tackle or two, there was always someone there to make the next one.”

For a change Munster also came away from a game without any fresh injuries, and although Oli Jager is still observing the return-to-play protocols, he resumed training on Tuesday. While it was “sad news” that Jack O’Donoghue will be absent for three or four months, there was also relief that the backrower will not require surgery and thus be sidelined, as initially feared, for eight or nine months.

Leamy said Peter O’Mahony’s contractual position was “an ongoing process” after a report in The Irish Times that their former captain of the last decade had not been offered a new deal by the province in advance of the IRFU not renewing his central one that finishes at the end of this season.

“It’s probably unfair for me to comment any further than that,” said Leamy. “That’s still ongoing so we’ll just have to wait and see how that pans out.”

Although rusty in his first outing for two months, O’Mahony clearly remains Munster’s spiritual leader.

Leamy, himself a former Munster backrower and captain, played alongside O’Mahony on the latter’s Heineken Cup debut in November 2011, when Munster beat Northampton 23-21 courtesy of that Ronan O’Gara drop goal after 40-plus phases. O’Mahony played the full 80 while Leamy, a replacement, gave the final pass off the base to O’Gara.

“That game was played in 2011 and he has had a lot of big games for Munster – and Ireland and the Lions – in between. He just brings a great calmness, a great standard-setter and just his ability to play rugby as well is fantastic.

“He’s someone that I think makes others feel better about themselves and certainly in the south of France, you need everyone feeling good about themselves.”

With the Irish Six Nations squad being announced at 2pm on Wednesday and several Munster players knocking on the door for a call-up or recall, Leamy went so far as to diplomatically put forward one player.

“It would be lovely to see guys certainly in the mix. Somebody like John Hodnett has been really, really good for us and it would be lovely to see that rewarded. But look, sport doesn’t always work like that either.”

Leamy also hailed the “impressive” maturity of Craig Casey and Jack Crowley over the last 18 months, citing the latter’s big game temperament pending his likely starting role on opening night in Marseilles against France.

His performance in Toulon was proof that Crowley can become Ireland’s first-choice outhalf.

“Ultimately, that is the test, isn’t it? These places are difficult places to go and play. If it’s not for now or in the next six months for Jack, he will continue to develop and it will be somewhere down the line. I’d have confidence in that.”

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times