HEINEKEN CUP QUARTER-FINAL Harlequins v Munster If ever one needed an indicator of the massive overhaul of personnel undertaken in the Munster camp over the last few years, a look at the team sheets the last time the province met Harlequins just 24 months ago should do nicely.
Just two seasons ago, when Conor O’Shea’s side inflicted a 20-12 Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final victory at Thomond Park over Tony McGahan’s outfit, Munster called on Denis Leamy and David Wallace, Paul Warwick and Lifeimi Mafi, while Tony Buckley started at tighthead, Mick O’Driscoll was in the second row and the bench numbered John Hayes, Peter Stringer and Sam Tuitupou.
All, of course, including McGahan, have since departed as Munster have undergone not so much transition as revolution in the intervening period but by contrast, if O’Shea was so disposed ahead of Sunday’s rematch in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, he could field 14 of the XV who started that game in Limerick.
With Keith Earls injured, Doug Howlett an injury doubt and both Wian du Preez and Damian Varley fulfilling bench duties more and more these days, scrum-half Conor Murray is likely, along with Ronan O’Gara and James Coughlan, to be one of just three starters that day to retain their places at The Stoop.
Remarkably, that was Murray’s first European home game, the Patrickswell youngster still being an Academy player and enjoying an introduction to top-flight professional rugby that would eventually see him included in Declan Kidney’s World Cup squad that autumn.
In the week Kidney also departed the scene, Murray paid tribute to the man who gave him his first cap — “I’m sure I’ll chat to him down the line and say thanks for everything. It’s definitely disappointing” — and recalled that first Harlequins match-up and the way it still resonates among the surviving players as they head to London this weekend.
“That was a hard day,” Murray said. “I think it was my first European involvement after we beat Brive in the quarter-final over there. It was my first European home game with Munster and it was an unbelievable day, a sunny, dry day, a packed house, and just an unbelievably sad day.
“It was just a hard one to take because there was such a buzz around the city at the time and everyone was nearly expecting us to win, and we didn’t. It was just a shock to the system.”
Recent Munster form in the Pro12 has seen expectation levels dip considerably ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final and Murray, given two weeks off following a Six Nations in which he was an ever-present starter, has seen Rob Penney’s side stumble to three defeats and a draw in their last five games, watching with as much bewilderment as any supporter last Friday night’s 51-24 horror show in Glasgow.
“By record Munster apparently don’t perform the week before Heineken quarter-finals and we definitely ticked that box,” Murray said. “We are disappointed with how last week went.
“The scoreline is unbelievably disappointing — it’s a hammering, if you look at it — but three intercept tries is 21 points that you didn’t do from playing poorly, it’s just we were trying to play and they’re just unfortunate.
“I know you can’t be giving them away but at the end of the day we did give away three of them, which is pretty freakish in a game like that.
“I was watching the game at home and looking at the first 50 minutes, I thought we were doing a lot of really good things. I was getting out of my seat at times with some of the play we were getting through.
“Even defensively we were really hungry so they’re the things we’re trying to focus on this week and trying to get the mistakes out of the way.”
Murray, who is set return to the side along with fellow Irish international Peter O’Mahony and possibly Donnacha Ryan, subject to a fitness test, is confident that the causes of the defeat in Glasgow can quickly be ironed out in time to challenge English champions Harlequins at The Stoop.
“We’re not unaware of people writing us off and we’ve probably had that underdog tag that you link with Munster down through the years.
“So that’s definitely going to be an extra motivational tool this week and it’s probably been talked about during training and at meetings before training, that there’s people writing us off.
“There’s a lot of confidence in the squad, in terms of us playing quite well during the year at times. We haven’t been consistent but we have shown we have the ability to play quite well so we’re going to try to draw that out.
“This is a huge game. It could be a great day so you’ve got to gee yourself up and get energised about it in training, and try to gee up some of the lads who might be feeling the defeat still, get them excited about what could potentially happen at the weekend.”
What should Ronan O’Gara do next?
Ronan O’Gara admits he’s coming to the end of an illustrious playing career, but letting go is the hardest part for many sporting stars. Here’s three of his options...
Retire at the end of this season, begin his coaching education, take up media duties
Just as Brian O’Driscoll, two years his junior at age 34, is weighing up his playing future with Leinster, O’Gara must weigh up whether now is the right time to call it quits. There is an awful long time to regret hanging up one’s boots too soon. Nothing replaces playing, they say, and the Corkman clearly believes he still has much to offer. Media work can wait, while if he strikes the right deal, his coaching education can begin while he plays on.
Sign for another season at Munster
O’Gara this week said the only way he knows is the Munster way, and the lure of one last hurrah in the red number 10 may prove too strong. With international call-ups less likely, he’d have more of a day-to-day influence on the training ground as he moves from player to coach. The future Rob Penney is likely to influence any decision.
Strike a last moneybags offer abroad as an out-half and part-time kicking coach
O’Gara dropped a strong hint this week that this is an extremely viable option for next season when the veteran fly-half spoke of a desire to learn different rugby cultures as he embarks on a coaching career. Having turned down lucrative foreign deals in foreign climes during his younger days in favour of home comforts, a year or two in the sun, learning his trade and exploring a new lifestyle with his young family in France, Italy or Japan might suit him very nicely indeed. It would also give him a strong grounding for a credible return to the Munster fold on a future coaching ticket.
David Moyes has reiterated he could not have turned down Manchester United as he prepares to face Everton for the first time since making the move from Goodison Park to succeed Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
Expecting the unexpected is par for the course for the members of ITSA Theatre Company, which is staging its annual Improvised Panto at the Half Moon Theatre in Cork from Dec 6-21. Now in its third year, this fun event is, to some extent, guided by the over-16s audience.