European Champions Cup preview: Sale v Munster
The new European Champions Cup gets underway this weekend and here we look ahead to Munster's meeting with Sale Sharks...
It's a massive weekend for Anthony Foley as he takes charge of his first ever European game with Munster as they take on Sale Shark in Champions Cup.
There had been slight injury doubts this week but the starting 15 is very strong with the return of Peter O'Mahony a massive boost.
Mun XV v Sale: Jones, Conway, Smith, Hurley, Zebo; Keatley, Murray; Killer, Casey, Archer; Foley, P’OC; P O’Mahony – capt O’Donnell, Stander
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 17, 2014
Foley knows Sale well from his playing days, he lined out against them in the 2006 season when he captained Munster to Heineken Cup glory. The Irish province have lost their opening games in the last two campaigns so they'll want to avoid an unwanted hat-trick and here's our look at how the game will pan out.
Form heading into the game
Munster's early season form has been a bit patchy which is probably a symptom of a new coaching staff coming into and trying to implement ideas and systems.
They suffered two defeats in Thomond Park and managed two wins over the Italian sides but they'll hope the performance against Leinster a few weeks ago will be a turning point.
The first half performance in that game is the bar for future performances and although they followed it up with a comfortable win over Scarlets, they were sloppy enough in that game. Overall, signs are pretty positive heading into the weekend.
On paper, it looks like Sale have made a poor start to the season with four defeats out of six games but two of those were away to Saracens and Northampton. However, they've the second worst defence in the Aviva Premiership having conceded an average of 28 points over those games with Northampton managing 41 points last weekend. That not exactly the form you want to bring into your European campaign.
Conor Murray has developed in a real leader for Munster and even captained the side earlier this season. The 25-year-old has improved season-on-season and he seems to be thriving with the responsibility of being a senior player.
As Ronan O'Gara told us yesterday, Murray can kick, he can run, he can pass, he can tackle and he can control a game. If the pack can match or better what Sale offer, which they should do, then Murray will have a field day.
Looking at Sale, we have to go for the unpredictable Danny Cipriani. The number 10 seems to be focused on his rugby again after a few unsettled season and has even been mentioned for a possible place in the England squad for next year's World Cup. However, he needs to be 100% if Sale hope to cause an upset.
Where the game will be won or lost
If we're being honest, Munster have the advantage all over the pitch. The main threats from Sale come in the shape of Nathan Hines, who is out injured, Daniel Braid and Cipriani but outside that there isn't too much to fear for Anthony Foley's side.
The set piece is also somewhere the Reds can gain some dominance as Sale's line out and scrum struggled badly against Northampton last time out, something Foley will have noted.
Sale's pack is big but not very dynamic so we expect there to be some early gusto from the English side but ultimately Munster will beat them up and drive them backwards which should result with points on the board.
The Sale defence is there for the taking so if Munster can bring a combination of intensity, line speed and accuracy then they should get the job done pretty handy.
The importance of the game couldn't be higher with the challenges of Saracens and Clermont coming down the tracks. It's absolutely vital that the Reds pick up a bonus point win on Saturday and we believe they'll get it.
Have a read of our pre-match interview with Ronan O'Gara here.