When you are idle in a hotel room in Johannesburg, the pre-match statistics booklet for the Heineken Cup final offers welcome respite from the boredom. Where’s the oul paddies out here when you need one for a chat? Which is why a mass of statistics has become my coffee buddy for part of the week.
Tomorrow’s final in Newcastle will be Leinster’s 168th match in the Heineken Cup, only bettered by Munster on 174. If the reigning champions still lag behind their provincial rivals in that solitary sphere, they are well ahead of them in most every other area.
The Crusaders were on a flight to South Africa last Saturday by the time JJ Hanrahan saved Munster’s bacon and their season in the PRO14 at home to Treviso. A couple of days later we learn that coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery are leaving the management team at the end of the season.
All the while, Leinster are eyeing a double double of Champions Cup and PRO14. How much Leinster are ahead of Munster right now is difficult to quantify, but we will have a point of reference by tomorrow evening. Saracens well and truly spanked Munster.
Let’s see what special magic Messrs Cullen, Lancaster etc can conjure to disrupt this well-versed Saracens structure.
The departure of Flannery and Jones from Munster doesn’t look good from the outside.
They were offered what Munster describe as “competitive terms” so either the two lads weren’t happy with the deal (which is unlikely), or they weren’t happy with the structures and the environment. This is what it comes down to. What I read into this is that it wasn’t a contractual issue but rather a breakdown among the coaching staff.
This is now a strange and potentially difficult situation for Johann van Graan. He has brought in a South African defence coach in JP Ferreira alongside his two Irish assistants, but the two indigenous voices have decided to walk away. It poses all sorts of questions in my head.
As Leinster know too well, Munster have always been strongest when Munster people have been aboard the ship. That’s not a prerequisite of course, but it’s been an undeniable fact up to now.
The Munster accent in the management group has always been fundamental, but more and more it’s being eroded.
It completely rocks the whole organisation if you ask me.
Let’s be fair in the analysis of this situation for van Graan. Maybe he is of the view he can get better coaches in who will make his side better with the ball. That’s perfectly feasible. He knows Flannery and Felix much better as coaches than I do. He may want to take Munster in a different rugby direction.
This you could understand completely if the head coach had come out and said the two lads didn’t fit into his plans for Munster going forward and therefore their contracts were not being renewed. That’s perfectly acceptable if that is what van Graan wanted to do.
Two homegrown coaches in Munster have rejected contracts, and that doesn’t look good at all for the South African. But how would Munster supporters feel if their replacements delivered a different, more productive brand of rugby next season? A gameplan that put bums on seats and had them seriously challenging for trophies?
And that’s the real gamble in this for van Graan. There has not been sufficient progress in terms of a more inventive game under this coach. Wouldn’t it be accurate to say Munster are pretty much where they were under his predecessor and compatriot Rassie Erasmus?
It’s hardly Archimedes in the bath-tub to say Munster need their horizons broadened.
They need a more inventive game plan that challenges the best-structured teams. And fast. The trouble with a new management team, whoever is involved, next season, is the time it will take to bed in.
Do Munster have that time while the likes of Leinster and Saracens are racking up more trophies and disappearing over the horizon?
I don’t know what type of coaches Felix and Jerry are, but I know one thing — they are good people and they are pretty easy to get along with. There must be some serious fracture if they’ve decided to walk away.
Anyway, back to tomorrow.
One of the things the pre-match stats won’t tell you is what a perfect surface tomorrow’s final will be played on. St James’ Park in Newcastle will deliver a fast, slick canvas that will facilitate a high-tempo game. That will suit both sides. But it will have next to no material influence on the fascinating subplot of which team will crack first mentally.
There is no favourite or underdog here. If both sides play to near their maximum, Leinster win the final, but the problem is Saracens don’t normally allow teams play close to their best. I was stunned by the gap in class last season in Leinster’s 30-19 quarter-final win over Saracens, but nothing of the sort is likely tomorrow.
What’s changed? Let’s look back again to the Aviva
Stadium in February for the Ireland-England game that rewrote so many pre-scripted narratives. It’s a reminder how much of top-level sport is played in the top six inches. The aura of dominance around Irish rugby ended last February. Yesterday’s news. Saracens had a sizeable contingent in Dublin, and a big-game performer in Liam Williams to add to the mix. We have discussed previously the cast-iron faith and trust in their defence and among their defenders, and even the most rabid Munster fan would accept they had no answer in the semi-final to an outfit profoundly superior in every department. But Leinster offer a more varied, more consistent, and power-packed set of
All around the pitch, there are appetising duels.
Owen Farrell versus Johnny Sexton is a storyline worth following all by itself. They know each other, played with and against each other, and don’t exactly love each other. That will be spicy. This is their stage.
When Johnny prepares well for a game and gets in that zone, his ability to manage the mayhem and deliver a favourable result is consistently high.
Speaking of height, Devin Toner is all that and the security he offers on Leinster’s own throw is matched by the
difficulty he causes on the opposition lineout. That’s the thing. There are game-changers in every phase of the final. The aforementioned Liam Williams is that rare jewel who delivers his best when the prize is greatest. A cracking sign of a player.
It’s OK on occasions to say I don’t know who’s going to win tomorrow. What way will Leinster upset the Saracens structure with special plays, and will they be given the time and room to execute them against such an organised defence? Line speed. Pressure game. Kicking game. It’s not like Saracens will bring a book of trick plays to the table. They have their sprinkles of stardust but there’s every chance that an error, or a succession of errors, will contribute more to the result than a moment of magic.
Saracens may not get the pulse racing for the purist, but they still score some brilliant tries. If they are not overpowered by the full embrace of the rugby community, it’s probably more to do with the issues around the salary cap than their precise, almost metronomic kicking game.
Either way, they are a tough nut to crack.
Neither result would surprise me. And wouldn’t it be ironic if this battle of the galacticos was decided by those old-fashioned virtues Munster patented: Workrate, pressure, and hustle.
Already, another team of Reds have shown this week how well that can work against the very best.
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