Donal Lenihan: Leinster hot to trot but Munster can’t get cold feet

Donal Lenihan: Leinster hot to trot but Munster can’t get cold feet
Leinster coach Leo Cullen.

The always pragmatic Leinster coach Leo Cullen summed things up best when describing Leinster’s hard-fought win away to Lyon on Saturday: “It’s just about getting the job done at the moment, isn’t it?”

The key to being successful in Europe is that some teams are just better at consistently “getting the job done” than others.

The top teams in Europe will always have a plethora of players involved in international squads, something Cullen has lived with since the day he was elevated, against the odds, to succeed Matt O’Connor.

That is why, especially in a World Cup year, for the clubs most affected by those international call-ups, the opening two rounds of Champions Cup action is about getting the job done while drip-feeding the star players back into the club environment after missing an entire pre-season and two months of domestic action.

Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have squeezed the maximum out of their resources since the start of the season to remain unbeaten after eight competitive games on the domestic and European front. If they can beat Northampton Saints in Franklins Gardens next time out in Europe, they will already have one foot firmly planted in a home quarter-final.

This has been achieved while exposing the next generation of players to the demands of club rugby at the highest level. Ronan Kelleher and Max Deegan were the latest from a long Academy production line to be exposed to the specific demands of Champions Cup rugby on French soil.

Both acquitted themselves admirably in a pack where Josh Van Der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, and James Ryan were the standout performers. It’s some achievement for Leinster to replace such a stellar back row of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, and Dan Leavy over the last two season in the seamless manner Cullen has presided over.

Leinster are in a good place.

After 160 plus minutes of competitive action, Munster are currently separated from Racing 92 at the top of Pool 4 on points difference — a single point, to be precise.

When Johann van Graan reviews their opening European performances, he will be mindful of the fact that three of the seven pool points accumulated were salvaged in squeaky bum time.

The four-try bonus point away toOspreys was secured in the fourth minute of added time while JJ Hanrahan’s magnificent touchline conversion against Racing 92 bisected the posts with less than two minutes of normal time to go.

Without those three points, Munster’s European challenge would be over already.

Their admirable willingness to fight to the death is the reason they remain alive and competitive. Munster’s fate will now be decided on what happens against Saracens in those eagerly awaited, back-to-back clashes next month.

Racing 92 are in pole position as they have already accumulated a full five-point haul at home against Saracens. You can take it as read that they will accumulate at least nine points — more likely 10 — from their back-to-back meetings against a pitiful Ospreys outfit when Munster are slugging it out with Mark McCall’s men.

Racing ooze quality. After two unsuccessful final appearances over the last four seasons, they have a squad capable of going all the way this year, especially if Saracens fail to make the cut while focusing on theirdomestic challenges.

The quality of their back line, with everyone available, is scary. For how much longer can France afford to ignore the mercurial talents of Teddy Thomas? He was sheer class on Saturday. While Damian Penaud and Alivereti Raki had impressive World Cups, Thomas must surely rate ahead of Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget at this stage.

Some day soon, France are going to get theirselection right.When that happens — and I suspect it could be soon under new coach Fabien Galthié — the rest had better look out.

Racing centre Virimi Vakatawa, while comparatively quiet on Saturday, is a sensational talent. Finn Russell looks so much more composed and effective playing for Racing than in Scottish colours. I always feel he tries to compensate for Scotland’s lack of real quality in midfield by trying to deliver the miracle pass, when it’s not really on, in order to make things happen for his national side. With a bit more pragmatism, he could besensational in a Lions set-up.

The return game at La Defense Arena is going to be even more demanding because Racing know, on that dry indoor track, they will generate quick ball. With the quality they have behind the scrum, they have the capacity to make anyone look foolish. That game will be irrelevant however if Munster don’t beat Saracens at Thomond Park.

Munster have to win that, regardless of the combination McCall sends to Limerick.

Interviewed last week on the big pow-wow that had taken place between the Saracens management and the entire squad, united for the first time all season, he was asked how the players had responded to the deep hole the club has found itself in as a consequence of the crippling fine and points deduction imposed by Premiership rugby.

The overriding reaction from the players was revealing if not entirely surprising. Summarised, it was along the lines: “It’s payback time. The club has been good to us. It’s time for us to be good to the club.”

Ominous but predictable sentiments. Munster will get nothing easy.

The increasing influence exerted by Stephen Larkham was in evidence again on Saturday, even if Munster didn’t capitalise on all the attacking opportunities created.

The difference this season is Munster are creating the chances. Six line breaks and 31 defenders beaten against a side of Racing’s quality is testament to that.

While he will agonise over his drop goal miss, JJ Hanrahan would be better served dwelling on all the positive aspects he brought to Munster’s attack.

Restored to the starting line up after a hamstring tweak against Ulster and reenergised by the guiding hand of the former Wallaby pivot, Hanrahan has been like a new signing this season.

With Joey Carbery likely to be out of action for a while yet and Tyler Bleyendaal unavailable once again, the Currow man has a massive role to play for Munster between now and the new year.

Regardless of what happens against Saracens, Munster must stick with the plan to expand their game in the knowledge that the attritional approach has proved insufficient to progress beyond the top four in both the PRO14 and Europe in recent times.

The last coach who identified Munster’s shortcomings and attempted to address them was cut off midstream when Rob Penney looked to show Munster the way forward between 2012 and 2014. Whatever happens in the next few months, Munster can’t afford to get cold feet again.

Finally, on a weekend when Hanrahan attracted the headlines for a variety of reasons, a nod to the out-half conveyor belt that appears to be presenting a host of promising No 10s in Munster. With Irish U20 Grand Slammers Ben Healy and Jake Flannery taking up the pivotal positions in the Munster academy, two former members managed to make their mark in Europe last weekend.

Former Rockwell star Bill Johnson entered the fray with 12 minutes to go, in Ulster’s great win over Clermont Auvergne in Belfast closing out the game admirably.

Even more impressive was the performance of former Limerick minor hurler Conor Fitzgerald who played the entire match for Connacht, away to Toulouse, contributing a peach of a drop goal in a superb display.

The fact that Fitzgerald started ahead of Jack Carty and remained on the field when the Irish out-half was introduced off the bench in the centre speaks volumes for the progress he has made under Andy Friend in Galway.

Released by the Munster academy last season, Fitzgerald could yet prove to be the one that got away.

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