DONAL LENIHAN: The day the new red wave came of age

An hour before kick off, Sky’s Stuart Barnes pulled me aside in Thomond Park, seeking a quick insight on Tommy O’Donnell.

Munster were hosting Ulster in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and Barnsey was hunting a little local knowledge.

A long time admirer of the Tipperary man, I was possibly a little over-effusive in my assessment of the quarter-final debutant when comparing him to Australian powerhouse groundhog David Pocock. He was still learning his trade as an open side at the time after playing the majority of his rugby to that point in one of the other two back-row slots. I was convinced, however, that his future was as a No 7 and that he had the ability to go all the way. Barnes was taken aback a little by my ringing endorsement.

I had watched this fellow develop over the years and was particularly impressed by what I had seen at close quarters a few seasons earlier after spending three days observing the Munster academy players being put through a series of gruelling sessions in the dreaded cryotherapy chambers of Spala in Poland. In his third year in the academy at that stage, O’Donnell was a senior figure and trained as such. He was a colossus, excelling in all disciplines where his raw power, pace and attention to detail left others in his wake.

New academy entrants Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray appeared a little on the scrawny side by comparison, but you could see the Cork man looking over with a little envy at the scores a potential rival for a future slot in the Munster back row was achieving. You sensed, given his pedigree, that it would be only a matter of time before he closed the gap but O’Donnell’s athletic prowess never left me.

Unfortunately, last year’s quarter-final against Ulster passed him by as the intensity of the Ulster back row, with Chris Henry to the fore, stifled the same Munster trio that played Harlequins off the park last Sunday. Almost 12 months to the day, O’Donnell delivered the tour de force I always suspected he was capable of. The manner in which he dominated England’s Chris Robshaw was astonishing, as the latter is an excellent player and an impressive individual. He was handed the poisoned chalice of leading England out of the mire, with just a single cap to his name, after their shambolic off-field implosion at the 2011 World Cup.

O’Donnell came of age on Sunday and Munster now have a worthy successor to the great David Wallace in that key open side role. While Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara were, as ever, pivotal to Munster’s latest demolition job on a highly-rated Premiership side, it is the younger group that will stand to benefit most from this experience.

Whatever happens against Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, Munster’s ever-improving band of young hopefuls are already in bonus territory. If O’Connell and O’Gara offered the leadership and direction at the Stoop, this famous victory would not have happened without the sizeable contribution of Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, O’Donnell, O’Mahony, Murray, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones. They represent the future and it is key that they, as the core of the side for the next five years, now have an achievement of this magnitude stored away in the memory bank.

Of even more importance is the fact that it was achieved away from the comfort blanket of Thomond Park. When Munster did the necessary in terms of tries scored and bonus point won in that backs to the wall game against Racing Metro in January, the fact the game was in Limerick was always going to tip the scales in their favour.

That is way last Sunday’s victory and the manner with which it was achieved will prove far more beneficial in the seasons to come. O’Connell and O’Gara won’t be around forever and the next generation needed to convince themselves they too have what it takes to emerge from the shadows of those who have gone before them.

In comparison to Saturday’s quarter-final, where Ulster’s magnificent support was lost a little in the vast empty spaces of Twickenham, the Munster support was once again amazing at the Stoop.

The manner in which they surrounded the pitch-side advertising hoardings, as the Munster players went on the slowest lap of honour I have seen for some time, was reminiscent of the early days on this great European adventure. Once again the players and supporters were as one as the Harlequins contingent were forced to melt into the background and cede top billing on their home patch to the travelling faithful. That moment was important for the young players as it cements the bond for the next generation. It was also enlightening for Rob Penney and Simon Mannix as it offered a further insight into the psyche of what this Munster rugby thing is all about.

To be fair to Penney, while Munster were far more direct and reverted to type by overloading their lineout maul and prioritising their quest for territorial dominance, once the building blocks were in place, they adhered to the patterns and attacking pods that Penney has introduced. During that crucial period of ascendancy in the third quarter, that attacking shape delivered great try-scoring opportunities when Casey Laulala produced one spectacular off-load to release Murray and was within a whisker of another. By comparison, Harlequins never looked like threatening the Munster line.

The problem for Munster is they cannot deliver power displays like this week on week and will find it difficult to dominate the physical exchanges against an outstanding Clermont eight to the same degree as they did against Harlequins. That is why it is essential to maintain a balance to their game. They achieved that equilibrium perfectly on Sunday.

The benefits of that will hopefully extend to the Lions selection, with O’Connell now a certainty for inclusion with the possibility that his phoenix-like return could now extend to leading the party.

Murray, O’Mahony and Zebo are others who have strengthened their case for inclusion, with Warren Gatland sure to observe how that young trio handle the unique demands a Heineken Cup semi-final in the south of France throws up. What an occasion that promises to be.

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