David Flatman: Quins pack enough to humble Europe's fading force
From the Front Row: Nick Easter does add a world-class third option at the rear for Harlequins
Sunday 07 April 2013
This afternoon sees two of Europe's biggest teams collide at the Twickenham Stoop with each trying to re-establish themselves as genuine big hitters.
While Harlequins' recent form hardly constitutes a slide, losing their last three Aviva Premiership games is a worry. In between came triumph in the LV= Cup, but that was largely their second team. This says huge amounts about their overall strength, but the first-teamers must find a way to win and quick if they are to overrun the likes of Saracens and Leicester.
Both are in imperious domestic form. On the other hand, Munster, with whom European rugby will forever be linked, are not the force they were. Last week they were destroyed by Glasgow, and there was none of this "resting key players for the Heineken Cup" malarkey; they put out the big guns and leaked 51 points. However, when they trounced Racing Metro 92 in January there were, to the hopeful observer, glimpses of the ferocity that we all now assume they will produce on days like this. With Leinster now dumped out of the big one, the Munster men have the opportunity to reassume their position as kings of Ireland.
However, I think geography may signal their downfall. I always try to avoid giving too much credence to the myth that surrounds home advantage, primarily because, as a player, it just never bothered me. In fact, lots of my favourite memories were made in grounds considered "hostile". I recall preparing to play Ulster at Ravenhill in a Heineken Cup match with the coach doing his best to make us understand how gruesome this environment was likely to be. He talked of a vitriolic crowd, unplayable winds and referees turning blind eyes to the home side's naughty tactics. When, in answer to a leading question of his, I replied, "I quite like playing there, and the crowd always seem to be good fun", his facial expression told me that I had ruined his big plan of intimidation.
But Thomond Park, that place is different. Not because it's scary, but because Munster so often seem to raise their game to a new level there. It can be like playing against 20 men. It's more than a great stadium; it's a spiritual home that the players seem naturally to feel they must defend.
But this game isn't in Limerick and, in Quins, Munster will find an opposition that cares not for reputations. You might argue that any team with the ebullient Danny Care in it will never be short on confidence, and I think that's a decent point, but it's actually the quality of their basics that needs to see them through this afternoon.
Munster never used to have the best scrum, even when they were winning Heineken Cups. But with Springbok BJ Botha now using his distinctive technique (watch how high he sets before engagement; it sometimes looks like he is standing upright before dropping down on to the back of the loosehead's neck), they have real power. Joe Marler is flexible enough to deal with the angles Botha creates, but he must engage quicker so as not to be caught by a man known to punish mistakes with glee. The Quins line-out is strong, too, with Nick Easter adding a world-class third option at the rear which could be of real value when Care or Nick Evans fancy sending the hugely impressive Tom Casson on a barrelling mission up the middle.
So with these basics firmed up, this game might well come down to who manages to impose their game on the other. Munster will look to harass at the breakdown, to pin Quins in the corners via the somewhat capable boot of Ronan O'Gara, and they will look to pressurise every aspect of the hosts' game. Some of this will be perceived pressure – that brought about by volume of communication and by naming individuals before they receive the ball – while some will be for real. They will chase kicks, hit lines and clear rucks with typical venom. The thing is, though, Quins will be looking to play at such a tempo that, by the time a Munster man shouts "Robshaw's mine", he's already tackling or chasing shadows. This will be the bruisers versus the banshees, and I cannot wait to see it.
Both teams need to find some form from somewhere. My money is on the English champions.
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