Fiji — Whatever about the rugby insights in these Irish Examiner columns, you’ve got to award me points for some of the datelines; Fiji being the latest this week.
Of all the places I’ve been, this island is the ultimate wellness and mindfulness paradise without even trying. The people are horizontal. They are smiley and helpful and they give me a slightly belated understanding why some of the Fijians would always return back to Racing 92 a couple of days late from international duty. Who’d want to leave this place? I got chatting to some local fella yesterday on the beach. Said he was a brother of Toulon’s Josua Tuisova. Maybe he was. Everyone feels like they’re family here.
It was all about as far apart on the intensity spectrum from this weekend’s European Cup semi-finals as is possible.
The Crusaders are on a gap week from the Super Rugby season too, so it was perfect for thinking space. One of the things I promised with this column is keeping it factual.
So while there has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks about me going to the World Cup as part of the French backroom team, I did say all along there was nothing concrete to report. And so it has proved. I had conversations with senior people in the FFR and I was interested in a detailed proposition, but the conversation never got to that point, to the bit where a specific role working with specific people was on the table. I’ve heard no more in recent weeks, so I can assume it’s off the table now.
Life comes down to opportunities and how you deal with them. There are opportunities you go after with passion and intent, moments that clear a pathway. Tomorrow is one such for this current group of Munster rugby players. Why are people looking at the Heineken Cup semi-final in terms of the scale of Munster’s task against Saracens when you can look upon it as a glorious opportunity?
Everything is there for Munster to go after. The opposition demands that Munster pursue this relentlessly. That they be the aggressors and throw something at Mark McCall and his players that knocks them, psychologically, off their sure foot. Let’s tease that out.
If Munster attack predictably, and follow the template, then sorry, they are not going to win the game at the Ricoh Arena. So, in that regard, kicking isn’t the solution. The tactics in the semi-final at the Aviva two seasons ago against the same opposition will produce the same disappointing result. The way you beat Saracens - and it’s a bloody difficult thing - is to go through the heart of them. With their defensive line speed, it will require a consistent emphasis on short passing and footwork. But this can’t be tika-taka rugby. It’s got to be pass-pass-pass and go. The maximum passes you can thread together is three before you make a burst or push the pass into space, whether it be foot or hand. If Munster bid to counter Saracens’ line speed with big passes, they are going to get killed.
For nerds of the game, it’s very interesting to watch how Saracens defend, in terms of scanning the ball, which makes them very strong as a collective, like a necklace or a chain. The key is breaking that chain, knocking it out of its practised positions and shape.
An intensity that Munster haven’t attained yet this year will be required to defeat McCall’s side.
Keep the ball in play. The thing about ‘good defending’ is that it’s easy when your heart rate isn’t stressed. When the Saracens forwards’ brains aren’t fried because there is no pressure from stress or fatigue, their decisions are easy. What Munster must do is force the pace of the game to challenge these guys and get them to a muzzy-headed state of running into rucks without watching what is going on peripherally around them.
Saracens aren’t tested to that extent in the English Premiership, nowhere near it. We saw what we believed to be a bullet-proof outfit rock up at the Aviva to face England this spring. Saracens won’t consciously have that mindset in Coventry, but neither did Ireland. By the time they realise that everything is moving just that bit quicker than they are used to, it may be too late. One of the great things about Munster rugby down the decades has been their physicality. Let’s see it. It could be their key point of difference.
Saracens are a far more sophisticated rugby challenge than Edinburgh and, on that basis, you would think that Munster will struggle to handle it, but only if you believe there to nothing more to come from this Munster side. Over the last eight years Leinster have been the pre-eminent force in Irish rugby, and within that, as a pack of forwards. But that dynamic has turned a bit and in Dave Kilcoyne, you have a singular manifestation of that. A little bit in the wilderness for a couple of seasons, he’s had a look at himself and his game, he’s matured, and he realises that his time is now.
It is also Munster’s.
Every year, every season, in the Heineken Cup, there’s a standout performance from Munster and we haven’t seen one yet this campaign. I think we will see it tomorrow. This is the team that has given unbelievable memories to this competition, moments woven into the fabric of the Heineken Cup. Tomorrow is possibly the most Munster of scenarios. That of a dangerous underdog. You look at the psyche of going to Edinburgh as favourites in the quarter-final and you understand why we all believed it to be a bad place for Munster. But this is the one that gets the pulses racing.
The moments have to come from everywhere and from everyone. Twelve of the starting XV must hit 90%. Tyler Bleyendaal has made this opportunity for himself and I expect big things from him, but you’ve got to feel a little bit for JJ Hanrahan, who’s become a bit of a forgotten man. Maybe he started his renaissance last weekend in Italy. I have a feeling JJ will have a very important segment of the game to control tomorrow. It mightn’t be the glorious bit of action you get the headlines for in tight situations.
I was at the Leinster game in Dublin when they defeated Wasps in Round 1 of the pool phase and they looked an awesome proposition. But that was October, and this is spring rugby, with good ground and fast ball. Leo Cullen will recognise that they haven’t hit those levels since for a variety of reasons and while neither he or Stuart Lancaster fret, there’s an uneasiness they don’t have much momentum heading into Sunday’s semi-final with Toulouse. There is a real evenness about the four semi-finalists now, even if you ranked Leinster first and Munster fourth. Cullen’s side have more recent success at this stage than the other three, which is the primary reason they are ranked first.
But in Toulouse, they face a group which is tighter than a lot of Top 14 squads. A united dressing room is a very loose entity in French rugby, but it would appear from body language that they have something good going on. The dynamic between domestic and overseas players is a critical issue in the Top 14 and someone like a Joe Tekori is massive in that regard. Hence his availability, or otherwise, will have a determining effect for the visitors to the Aviva on Sunday.
When Leinster were struggling with Ulster, Treviso and latterly Glasgow, everyone said that’s not the full-on Leinster, but they have set standards and they are desperate that they be maintained. There was a time not too long ago when a Leinster second string was still getting the results. I am not so sure there isn’t an opening there for Toulouse on Sunday in terms of Leinster’s lack of cohesion.
Ultimately though you would bank on Leinster’s thoroughbreds prevailing. That axis of Sexton- Henshaw-Ringrose is an incredibly strong midfield at club level.