Simon Zebo and Tadhg Beirne during the Munster Rugby squad training at University of Limerick. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Last 16 on horizon for Munster

Stephen O’Leary

Thomond Park will be rocking this Saturday evening as Munster look to secure a place in the last 16 of the European Rugby Champions Cup when they face table toppers Northampton.

A win would signal an extraordinary turnaround in what has been a frustrating season for Graham Rowntree’s side.

An extensive injury list and inconsistent form left Munster in 10th position in the United Rugby Championship (URC) table, and without a win in Europe.

Last Saturday marked a shift, however, as Munster showed resilience to overcome Toulon on their own turf – only their fifth ever European defeat at Stade Mayol.

The French side took a 10 point lead before Jack Crowley put Munster on the scoreboard with a penalty. The Red Army turned the tide from that point on for a famous 29-18 win.

Alex Nankivell crashed over for Munster’s first try, before a deft chip from Crowley sent Simon Zebo in under the posts for the second. Crowley found Tom Ahern with the boot, with the rangy lock fending off tacklers to touch down in the corner.

The bonus point was secured by Calvin Nash, who plucked Craig Casey’s box kick from the sky at full pace, and raced clear to the delight of the raucous travelling fans.

“I’m immensely proud,” head coach Graham Rowntree said after the game. “We’ve had a considerable amount of injuries, a lot of moving parts, but we knew we had that performance in us.”

No further knocks were reported ahead of the Northampton game. Peter O’Mahony’s return for the Toulon fixture was a huge boost, although questions remain about his contract, which ends this summer.

Niall Scannell’s presence at hooker solidified what has been a shaky lineout in his absence.

Jack O’Donoghue will not require knee surgery, but has been ruled out for three to four months. He joins David Kilcoyne (shoulder), Edwin Edogbo (achilles), and RG Snyman (chest/shoulder) among the still extensive group on the treatment table.

Northampton come to Limerick in excellent form, leading the English Premiership and racking up 61 points in a thrashing of Bayonne last week. The Saints have already guaranteed a home knockout tie, but will still be fighting for top spot in Pool 3.

Munster themselves could also earn home advantage in the next round. Should Exeter lose to Bayonne by more than seven, a bonus point Munster win would be enough to steal second place with a greater points differential than Exeter, and with it a return to Thomond Park.

A win without the bonus would ensure third place and an away tie. Depending on other results, a loss could still see Munster through or go out. Munster face Northampton in the European Rugby Champions Cup at 5.30pm on Saturday at Thomond Park.

Meanwhile, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named Cork’s Peter O’Mahony as the new Ireland captain for the Six Nations. He is joined in the squad by Calvin Nash, Craig Casey, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Crowley and Conor Murray.