With qualification to the round of sixteen secured, Munster will face a number of weeks without their Irish internationals.
Munster closed off the group stages as emphatically as they could with their huge win against Wasps. The 45-7 victory set a marker as Munster’s season starts to ramp up.
The United Rugby championship is still ongoing and with Munster paired with the Exeter Chiefs in the next round in Europe, Johann Van Graan’s side still have high hopes for silverware.
With Van Graan’s term as Munster’s head coach ending, either trophy this season would be the perfect send off for the South African.
Munster will face Italian team Zebre this weekend in the URC and they will be looking to take their European form into the contest.
Below are some of the talking points to emerge from the win over Wasps as attention reverts to the domestic action.
Munster’s English challenge in Europe.
Munster will face the 2020 champions, the Exeter Chiefs in the Round of 16 over consecutive weekends in early April.
As previous winners of the tournament Exeter are a terrifying prospect for any side to be drawn against. In the same season of their European Cup win they also managed to win their native English Premiership just highlighting the quality they have in their squad.
Notable stars like Henry Slade, a utility back who mostly is found in the centre is a dangerous prospect for any defensive line. Star forward and Lion, Sam Simmonds adds to the challenge Munster would be facing.
Simmonds made his premiership debut in 2017 and since then he has become a talisman of sorts for the English side. Scoring a club record fifty-five tries, the forward will be ready for a physical game and Munster will have to be able to counter this threat.
Vaan Graan is aware of the quality of their opponents as they had previously been pooled together as he said,
With change of format of the round of 16 comes an added challenge. Speaking on the new format Vaan Graan had this to say.
“The round of 16 is going to be very unique, the first time the Champions Cup is on points across to legs, so win or lose the first one by X amount of points, you’ve got to be better that second time around”
Zebo Flying High
After having his red card against Ulster overturned, Simon Zebo would have been keen to put down a marker in his next performance. The Cork man missed out on Munster’s game against Castres which surely would have had the elusive back itching to be on the field.
Zebo had made a high profile move to Racing 92 back in 2018 as he seemed to fall out of favour in the Irish camp. He appeared 60 times for the blues scoring a hefty 125 points for the French side.
Since Zebo’s return from French rugby he has found it difficult to bounce back into his normal form. However, his most recent performance might be the spark he needs to bring back his X-factor. Finishing off two very well worked tries his final touch seems to have never left.
Scoring those two tries was also very significant for Zebo as a player. “Zeebs” became Munster’s highest try scorer ever in the European Cup surpassing former player and Head Coach Anthony Foley.
With the Irish side being named last week and Zebo’s exclusion being heavily highlighted it seems that the announcement might have been a factor in his most recent performance. If the former ace can find his feet again for his province it wouldn’t be a surprise if we see Zebo back in a green shirt sooner rather than later.
What does the Six Nations means for Munster
Each season provincial sides lose their stars to the Six Nations tournament and this one will be no different.
With nine of Munster’s top players departing to represent their country it begs the question, how will Munster fare?
Ireland’s red province will be without the likes of captain Peter O’Mahony, both first choice number 9s and a pair of back row goliaths in Tadgh Beirne and Gavin Coombes to name a few. Due to such strong performances put in by Munster it was only inevitable that those would be included in the international set up.
Munster will have four games in the URC during the Six Nations. With difficult fixtures against the likes of the leaders Edinburgh, Munster’s players who will not be travelling to the tournament must step up to fill the boots of their star players.
With the likes of Mike Haley and Simon Zebo in the backs, Munster still remain a threat to any team that they play. Jack O’ Donoghue, Alex Kendellen and John Hodnett to name a few show that Munster still have terrific and powerful options to help affect the game on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game.
The URC table is very much still in the balance and the next period of games could leave the championship wide open before the Six Nations concludes.