Munster focus on different type of future
By Donal Lenihan
Every dog has its day.
Tony McGahan realised that after Munster’s 32-16 defeat to Toulon in their Heineken Cup pool game last season and I suspect that long-time Toulouse coach Guy Noves finally accepted it on the flight home from Edinburgh last Saturday night.
Toulouse have been the Heineken Cup’s standard bearers for so long but Saturday’s defeat by a brave andcommitted Edinburgh side, brilliantly prepared and primed for action by my former team-mate, Michael Bradley, could signal the end for so manyindividuals who have graced the Heineken Cup with distinction over the years.
The likes of William Servat in his last ever European game, Yannick Jauzion strangely played out of position at full-back, back row giant Jean Bouilhou, Florian Fritz and the mercurial Clement Poitrenaud all appear on borrowed time.
It is a measure of their standing in this great competition that beating them in the final makes winning the Heineken Cup that bit more special, and that is why the 2008 success ranks as the sweetest for so many of the Munster contingent.
Likewise Leinster’s outstanding win over Toulouse in a classic semi-final at the Aviva Stadium embellished their achievement in regaining the Heineken Cup last season.
Leinster look in rude health to repeat that triumph but will have to replicate those heroics in even more demanding surroundings when they travel to Bordeaux to take on a very powerful Clermont Auvergne side in this season’s semi-final.
While Leinster and Ulster have immediate issues to address, Munster must remain focused on the ongoing process of building for the future.McGahan took immediate action 12 months ago after that defeat in the south of France by introducing fresh faces for the remainder of Munster’s Magners League and ultimately unsuccessful Amlin Challenge Cup campaign.
The first steps in the rebuilding process have now been taken and on the evidence of the defeat to Ulster, it still has a way to travel. The responsibility for completing that journey now falls on McGahan’s replacement as head coach, and it is clear that it will take time. Paul O’Connell was the only Munster forward to start against Ulster that started against Toulouse in the 2008 final. Behind the scrum, Ronan O’Gara, Lifeimi Mafi and Denis Hurley are the only survivors, with Mafi bound for Perpignan at the end of the season.
Even more stark is the fact that only five of the side that started in that away defeat to Toulon a little more than a year ago began Sunday’s game. That is a massive turnover in such a short space of time.
What Munster need to do now is extract the positives from a campaign that could have faltered right from the start had O’Gara not delivered at the death against Northampton and Castres in the opening two games. The campaign reached a crescendo with that remarkable 36-51 win over the Saints in Milton Keynes where Munster played their best rugby since the 2009 quarter-final against the Ospreys. The one chink of light over a disappointing Easter weekend for Munster was the 29-36 victory after extra-time of the province’s A side over their highly-rated Leinster counterparts at the RDS in the semi-final of the British and Irish Cup. Munster’s immediate requirements lie behind the scrum and once again, the performances of Luke O’Dea, who can play at full back or on the wing, and JJ Hanrahan in the centre, suggest they have what it takes to make the breakthrough in the not-too-distant future. Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan also showed that the work being done off the field to produce homegrown props is well in train while Ian Nagle’s talent in the second row also shone through. If only he could manage to put a string of games together but injury and this season’s restrictions on contracted players in the AIL has stagnated his progress. All he needs is game time. How simple does that seem? After all, players train to play rugby, not the other way around. Unfortunately one of the pitfalls of the professional system in Ireland is that we have too many players on the books of the provinces that are playing little or no rugby, and are becoming gym monkeys.
Ian Keatley is another case in point. Brought in from Connacht this season as the potential long-term replacement for Ronan O’Gara, his form has suffered due to the fact he is not playing enough games. On the big weekends he is sitting on the bench but such is O’Gara’s importance to the team, Keatley rarely gets a run. When he is selected for the odd RaboDirect game, he ends up forcing things, trying to prove himself. On the flip side, with more game time on offer despite the presence of Jonny Sexton, Ian Madigan has made huge progress this season for Leinster and is now Ireland’s third choice out-half.
Despite performing in a beaten and demoralised looking Cardiff side on Saturday, Munster’s new midfieldsigning Casey Laulala suggested that he has much to offer and will add a fresh impetus next season. Munster badly need a big, physical, ball-carrying back row forward of proven international status to augment their resources in that area. Ulster had two standout performers in Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannenburg to do that job on Sunday and Munster felt the brunt in the contact area. That needs to be addressed immediately.
Leinster are getting better and better and have become the new Toulouse of the European game, with the quality of their back play threatening to surpass that of the great French outfit at the height of their powers. They are magic to watch and their ability to open up defences from set-piece plays is a wonder. You will go a long way to see a better try than the one scored by Brian O’Driscoll just before the break on Saturday.
It is a measure of the hunger and commitment of this Leinster side that they are equally as effective without the ball as they are with it. Their work at the breakdown and in the tackle area is second to none and time and time again the Cardiff ball carrier was isolated and forced to yield either a turnover or a penalty for not releasing. That said, nobody will appreciate more than Joe Schmidt the challenge Leinster face in the semi-final at the Stade Chaban-Delmas. That game is set up to copperfasten Leinster’s status as one of the greatest Heineken Cup sides of all time.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reservedHome