'Munster march to the semi-finals carrying the hopes of the nation'

'Munster march to the semi-finals carrying the hopes of the nation'

THE received wisdom before the Heineken Cup semi-finals is that Munster were supposedly the third best province in Ireland.

Clearly they didn’t bother to pay that much attention — perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry Thornley’s assertion that “Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province”.

For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets.

Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game. A home win always appeared likely.

Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player.

The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board.

Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart.

Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100 per cent positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever.

In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They look like outsiders — Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, but when has being ranked second-favourites bothered Munster when the Heineken Cup reaches its endgame?