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Munster seek Dublin date of destiny

9th October 2002 By Munster Rugby

Munster seek Dublin date of destiny

TWICKENHAM 2000, CARDIFF 2002. Finals reached, finals lost, hearts broken, legends made but not a pot to show for it.

TWICKENHAM 2000, CARDIFF 2002. Finals reached, finals lost, hearts broken, legends made but not a pot to show for it.

Alan Gaffney will be free to let his sheep wander through the thoroughfares of Ireland’s rugby capital and its first cousin by the Lee if he can mastermind victory for Munster in this year’s Heineken Cup, now firmly established as the premier club competition in the northern hemisphere.

The task before him is an onerous one, with Munster’s Pool Two fixtures providing a trickier path to quarter final qualification than what recent draws have presented the mighty men with. And they don’t come much bigger than next Saturday’s opener, which is undoubtedly the tie of the weekend.

If, (and it’s a big if) early season form suggests a changing of the guard at the top of English rugby, Gloucester appear the team most equipped to seize the mantle that defending domestic and continental kingpins Leicester have held these past few years.

Head coach Nigel Melville has shrewdly acquired the playing components essential to a serious affront on both home and foreign territories this season, and in the right boot of Ludovic Mercier boasts a potential match-winning weapon. But his reputation with the boot is met with scepticism in his ability with ball in hand, and the more astute all round game of his opposite number Ronan O’Gara could well prove the difference between victory and defeat this weekend.

League convert Henry Paul is still bedding in to his central position with the Kingsholm based side, whose support is perhaps the only in Europe to match the vocal ferocity of the jocular Munster horde. And again, his less than stunning start to proceedings this season, coupled with his facing the fully fit Rob Henderson, could prove another key area where Munster come out on top.

But questions remain about this Munster team. That they have settled well under Alan Gaffney and Brian Hickey, but to dive into the realm of cliché but for one sentence, the Heineken Cup is a whole new ball game in comparison to the Celtic League, a tournament which may at last land Munster a trophy this season. But Munster’s inability to score tries and score a lot of them makes success at the highest level all the more difficult to attain, and the absence of Anthony Horgan until Christmas at least does not help matters.

The form of newcomer Mossie Lawlor has been a source of great hope on the wing, and indeed has been the manner in which Gaffney has sought to make this his team, and not the success-starved cast offs of a so near and so far era under Messrs. Kidney and O’Donovan. If Munster is to eclipse the efforts of recent seasons, then crossing the opposition’s line with increasing regularity is the one area which almost certainly has to be improved upon.

Gloucester represent a massive challenge this Saturday, make no mistake. Their back row has been the foundation upon which topping the Premiership has been achieved and the trio of Junior Paramore, James Forrester and Jake Boer are certain to keep the famous Shed of Kingsholm heaving during Saturday’s encounter. Another close affair looks in the offing and current form suggests that the English side might just shade proceedings due to the slightly more competitive nature of the games that they have been exposed to in comparison to Munster.

But a Munster side which has had several players involved in World Cup action for Ireland may yet have enough competitive edge to make another famous away win materialise this weekend. This is a side which has made winning a habit these past three seasons, so it would be foolish in the extreme to give them anything less than a fighting chance in one of English club rugby’s great heartlands.

The year of the French was how it proved to be at Six Nations level, and several analysts believe the renaissance of the national team may drip its way down to a few of its clubs in this season’s ERC. With traditional favourites Stade Francais (conquered by Munster in last year’s last eight) ‘relegated’ to this season’s Parker Pen Challenge Cup, Toulouse look the team from the land of fine wines and fried snails best equipped to do the job.

But keep an eye on current French championship table toppers Perpignan, whose home support in the deep south of Languedoc poses major danger for the visiting Munster and Gloucester. The only racing certainty from this pool (dare I write it ‘pool of death’) is whoever emerges to join the other six qualifiers will have bloody well earned it. Oh, one almost forgot to mention Italian side Viadana, who make up the quartet in this pool. Nice name, lovely location and apparently they bottle their own wine. But that’s about it really.

With defending champions Leicester looking a little battle weary after five years of remarkable success, it appears that new champions will be in the offing come this season’s final at Lansdowne Road on May 24. Oh for an all Irish final, and one would presume on current form that would mean Leinster facing Munster in front of 55,000 Irish fans to settle some old scores and make some history. But let’s not get greedy – we’ll gladly settle for one set of our boys making the final – need we say which one?

 

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