RONAN O'GARA: There are things that excite, and concern me, about the game I love

Perhaps I’m getting carried away, but wasn’t that a pretty big statement from Munster against Leinster last Saturday?

When something seismic occurs in sport, we use the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint the time and place we spotted the early signs of a shift.

There’s no suggestion here that Leinster’s pre-eminence in the domestic and European game is on the wane, but there was something intangible in Munster’s display at Thomond Park that addressed a determination to change the narrative.

Munster’s Fineen Wycherley gets to grips with Leinster’s Johnny Sexton during Saturday’s PRO14 clash at Thomond Park. The 'rewards' forgetting an inappropriate reaction are worth the niggle and Johnny Sexton knows that. Picture: Gary Carr.

I looked at lads like Keith Earls. His body language spoke of someone with enough losses and disappointment already. That there needed to be more special nights, like last Saturday against Leinster. A full stadium, a brilliant atmosphere, the home crowd in full voice.

A proper occasion.

You got the sense that a few of the senior players had grabbed their destiny by the throat. Right. Enough. There was almost a Croke Park moment about it. That’s a big statement, but there was a definite shift. It wasn’t even about the personnel. Leinster can rightfully point to the fact they were missing Leavy, Toner, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw.

The latter’s fitness will determine if Leinster climb a podium this season. And it wasn’t even about the scoreboard. In that regard, the late try was like a bonus point to the visitors.

It will annoy Munster. At 26-10, this was a drubbing and a different debate. But Leinster finished the game scoring with 14 men.

You need to look elsewhere for the significant takeaways. In camp last week, Leinster would have been anticipating proper Munster physicality, trying to bully them around the pitch. Except Munster didn’t go out to do that.

They were more interested in the game and the ball, whereas Leinster failed to get the balance right between controlled aggression and one-on-one scraps — exampla gratis — Johnny Sexton’s reaction in the first few minutes of the game.

For two years, we’ve been saying Munster need to expand their game. That they can’t always be running over teams. There were still frustrating elements to their attacking execution, but even prior to James Lowe’s sending off, Munster’s accuracy around the carry was way more impressive than I’ve seen in recent years.

Kleyn and Beirne as a partnership has that lovely old school/new school feel to it. Kleyn went out to annoy James Ryan and did a bloody good job. Tadhg’s decision-making around the ruck and the poach is excellent, as is his ability to win the most important of penalties – the pressure-relieving ones.

In a previous column, we referred to managing the red mist as well as possible in pressure-cooker situations. After a couple of minutes, Munster’s Fineen Wycherley committed to a tackle on Johnny Sexton in the same way Shane Jennings did to me on dozens of occasions once upon a time. He followed through and he busted me. You just have to take those ones, but am I in a position to lecture?

When you are on the receiving end of that, it is very, very annoying. If you had your time back, you’d love to be able to smile at that stuff: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ But I’ve kicked out, lashed out, and boxed as well, so I am not going to be tut-tutting Johnny on it. He had a little strop and, in fairness to Wycherly, he didn’t take it. Now everyone in Irish rugby knows who Fineen Wycherley is. If you are a coach, that’s what you want your back row doing.

Johnny’s reaction won’t be lost on a lot of other interested parties. There’s an added incentive in winding up the out-half and playmaker. The ‘rewards’ for getting an inappropriate reaction are worth the niggles. Johnny knows that.

Johann van Graan is as aware as anyone that Leinster were not accurate enough with their discipline. He will be more concerned with his own players and the process.

The upcoming Heineken Cup games against Gloucester and Exeter are distinct one-off matches that are dangerous for the fact that they can derail Munster momentum in a hurry. Chances are they will come up against a former colleague at Kingsholm next week in Gerbrandt Grobler.

The South African’s time in Munster was not a happy one and he will have plenty of incentive to do well in the Round 5 fixture.

Whatever about the moral debate about second-chance offenders, the facts of his case regarding the use, and subsequent sanction for illegal performance-enhancing drugs, were crystal clear. More recently, Brian O’Driscoll stirred an interesting debate about the use of anti-inflammatories and painkillers before matches when he was with Leinster.

Not surprisingly in the current environment, it triggered a fevered reaction about the use of such medication and it wasn’t long before the conversation meandered into the realm of whether rugby was ‘dirty’ or not.

I don’t consider taking a Diafene anti-inflamm tablet to be cheating. The ‘juicers’ are the actual cheats. And they should be getting life bans. If World Rugby is serious in 2019, in a World Cup year, about eliminating performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), then sock it to the offenders for good.

If we are talking about growth hormone or anabolic steroids, you simply can’t get into a ‘second chance’ debate with that sort of conscious decision-making. Go away and find something else to pollute.

Sanctions from the governing body have to be so draconian so that young hopefuls of 17-18 years old are under no illusions as to the consequences of their actions.

As long as a young player believes the current system still gives him a chance to be successful, even down the track, some will consider it a risk worth taking. Rugby has to make the punishment for drug-taking an overwhelming disincentive.

A two-year ban if you’re 20 essentially means go away to the gym with no one watching and you come back with the benefits of juicing still intact in a couple of years. It’s not something rugby can be ambivalent about.

I didn’t have any major issue with what Drico said, but for the picture he created about doctors passing down the team bus with pain-killers on the way to a game. That jarred with me and I saw Leo Cullen has since looked to correct the impression Brian gave. Maybe it was just the language he was using, but this isn’t a flippant conversation.

The way that PEDs and TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) have become such a routine part of the sporting vocabulary means every professional rugby player nowadays is acutely aware of what they can and cannot take either as a painkiller or an anti-inflammatory. I know from my time that the biggest concern with Diafene, as Brian alluded to, was the effect it could have on your stomach.

It’s rare that a professional rugby player can say he is 100% right going into a game, but taking an anti-inflammatory to take your mind off the problem and help you focus on the job in hand is probably not the best approach to be taking.

There was no such mindset or culture with doctors on the bus in my time at Munster under Tadhg O’Sullivan and Mick Shinkwin. As tight as we were on that Munster journey - and there were very few personal weaknesses that didn’t get an airing - different fellas had different methods to deal with their own injuries or weak moments, and they didn’t need to involve codeine or Nurofen. There was no ‘here take one of those, they’ll sort ya’.

I remember one time I had a bad ankle issue and I took a Diafene suppository which provided fantastic relief.

Maybe as a 10 I was different. I had no interest in high-energy drinks or caffeine before a game, because I was the kicker. I needed to stay in the zone and not have a racing heart.

The Crusaders return to collective training in Christchurch next Monday. There’s nothing artificial about the buzz from that. The opportunity to influence how one of the game’s leading global brands play the game is a privilege I do not take lightly.

My eldest son Rua is 10 now. His first love is soccer and whether I want him to be a rugby player in the future is something I think about a lot. There is a huge responsibility with the educators and the coaches to shape the game and create a vision for future generations.

Rugby is changing so dramatically but if the future of the game is a pack of behemoths stalking the playing fields and boshing their way to superiority, then I don’t know if there’s a place for Rua. But if you are going to have a skill-based, decision-making game, then I’d have every interest in him being a rugby player.

But I do have concerns. 2019 is a showcase year for the sport. At home in Ireland, it will be the highlight event on the sporting calendar. Inside Joe Schmidt’s bubble, the only focus will be to reach and win a World Cup quarter-final. In all this talk about the tournament and the potential to win it, there’s a threshold that has yet to be crossed.

If the pool stages go to ranking form, the quarter-final is a massively difficult game against South Africa. Put it this way: apart from the All Blacks, is there a team Ireland would like to face less than the Springboks?

For anyone looking to the Six Nations and wondering about experimentation, it’s a non-debate.

Anyone going to Japan with Ireland has played in the national shirt already.

Twenty-three play in every test now, and while there might be a different 23 in each of the Six Nations games, that hardly amounts to ‘experimentation’.

If you are playing Kearney at 15, or Jordan Larmour at 15, do you expect the result to be substantially different? No, you don’t. Is it Tadhg Beirne, or Iain Henderson or Devin Toner or James Ryan in the second row?

It won’t matter hugely because they are all of a standard and experience now that a bolter has no capacity to catapult over them.

That’s a strength, not a weakness.


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