The Toulouse turnaround, and why Munster aren’t there yet

Head coach Johann van Graan with Joey Carbery during Munster Rugby Squad Training at the University of Limerick in Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The family visited a beautiful little old French settlement village of Akaroa, about 50 miles from Christchurch last weekend. Down by the sea, temperatures were warm and the water on the first weekend of January was like your mother’s bath, writes Ronan O’Gara

I’m not sure an Irish person ever gets the right side of their head to compute this sort of meteorological upside-down-ness. I was walking into Rugby Park yesterday, the Crusaders’ training base, and met a sign informing the public ‘Open from January 14’. Your instinct is to scoff and trash these lazy so-and-so’s after Christmas, until you register this is their equivalent of our August, when banks and civil service and builders are on their summer vacation. Eventually, we might align our heads with their routines.

In pre-season, management throws everything into the pot for consideration. Changing things up. Including routine, as it happens. These days, there’s an alternative view to everything in sports prep. Recently, we had an expert from the University of Canterbury telling us that everything we knew about player-empowerment needed second-guessing. In fact, the elite player now likes to be given specific instruction and likes to work within a defined gameplan because the alternative is too random and too individual. Who knew?

The Crusaders’ management got to chatting about warm-ups. Have we been sticking with the same pre-game warm-up because it’s routine and well, it’s all worked out pretty well these past two campaigns? The players trust in it, so why change? But is too much energy expended in these vigorous preps, and when we see players flagging in the last quarter of games, should we be examining the intensity of the warm-up as much as the 80 minutes of full-on? A rugby game is hard going so why wouldn’t you keep the tank full?

The conversation developed. Should the backs go backline against backline in the warm-up? Logistically, that’s okay for home games because you will have the numbers available, but not for away games because we wouldn’t have the travelling subs. But the warm-up can’t be determined by available numbers. I am certain some players enjoy going through an intense prep because it gives them the psychological comfort of being ready. Players are creatures of habit and they don’t like much week-to-week variation in the pre-game routine but if a change is for the right reason, it’s all good. Throwing all this stuff into the pot is a good thing if the talking reaches a definite conclusion and the buy-in is complete. If you are talking about this to an experienced player, they provide an informed perspective, while others think ‘well, this must be right because look at him, he’s doing it’.

One of the reasons I refer to that now is the sudden and impressive revival of Toulouse’s fortunes in the Top 14, and in Europe.

Tomorrow’s game in Dublin is probably the cherry on top of a tasty weekend of Heineken Cup fixtures, and Ugo Mola’s side arriving on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run, of which seven have been on the road.

Emile Ntamack’s son, Romain, has emerged from the U20 programme to be a real shining light in the centre for Toulouse. Zach Holmes is a good 10, the Springbok Cheslin Kolbe is on fire, and he typifies Toulouse’s calling card, which is a very instinctive, unstructured brand of attacking rugby. But these results speak to more than that. They were 17 points down away at Clermont, and came back to force a 20-20 draw.

That’s a good mindset and I suspect I know part of the reason. They are now a team with very strong advocates of hard work in William Servat, the forwards coach and assistant coach Regis Sonnes. The road to the Top 14 always went through Bandon!

Servat was a smart player, he has a good brain and a strong coaching personality and might have been frustrated with what was going on under Guy Noves. Toulouse players have said that in the past, there wasn’t enough detail and coaching in their play and the team spirit wasn’t where it needed to be.

Now they are playing for each other, which beyond the technical and tactical side of things, is a big plus in French rugby, and is a contributing factor to their impressive record on the road this season. The visit to Agen last week was a classic banana skin for Toulouse, having one eye on Leinster — a local derby, away from home.

But they ground out at unimpressive 27-20 victory to remain neck-and-neck with Clermont at the top of the ladder. They have won at Bath and Wasps and edged Leinster at the Ernest Wallon in Europe. They are not the finished article by any means — their turnover count, at 34, is too high in Europe and will get punished — but the Leinster back-line has a slightly callow feel to it in the absence of Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw (and Fergus McFadden), so it’s a very interesting proposition for Toulouse tomorrow.

It’s interesting that at a time Leinster’s back-line looks a touch light, Munster seem to be finally getting all their attacking aces on the pitch at the same time. It was a nice surprise to see Chris Farrell named in the centre for tonight’s trip to Kingsholm. What is also intriguing, and exciting, is the continuing evolution of Joey Carbery.

Notwithstanding Munster’s ability last Saturday to curtail Connacht’s physical edge, the key takeaway was Carbery playing at 15 and the manner in which his twinkle toes put the game out of Connacht’s reach.

What’s developing into something consistent now is how good a rugby player Carbery is. Naturally, he will find it easier playing at 15 because he has more space, but he will still develop into a top-class 10 if people are patient with him. In Munster’s Heineken Cup defeat at Castres, we saw evidence that he wasn’t far enough down the track to pull that sort of game nous out of his pocket. And in Castres, his pack was being beaten, whereas in the Sportsground last Saturday, the Munster pack was on the front-foot. The same situation prevailed for Johnny Sexton at Thomond Park two weeks ago. These are interesting developments too for Joe Schmidt in the context of back-up to Rob Kearney. With the exception of Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour, are there others with the footwork Carbery possesses? It is delicious.

Munster must now build momentum. The balloon deflates again if they come unstuck away to Gloucester this evening. Where Leinster have it in their locker to put together an 80-minute performance that has the wow factor, Munster have not done that to date. They huff and puff but are still looking for that attacking consistency. I would disagree with people saying Munster are there already. ‘There’ is trophies. That’s the Munster benchmark. Confidence levels are up, and desire levels are high. They are sick of looking over the garden fence at Leinster winning things.

Enough is enough, as we said last week. Putting bodies on the line is all well and fine but reaching those technically-high attacking performances still eludes them.

People must remember too, Johann van Graan has a good roster to work with, notwithstanding the frustration of not being able to get them on the pitch at the same time. Last Saturday wasn’t Tyler Bleyendaal’s best by any means but coming off the bench, he is of a quality where he can make an impact across the back-line at Heineken Cup level. That’s very important. He needs a run of games to get his confidence back but if you were speaking in Formula One terms, van Graan still has a very good engine at his disposal in the Kiwi.

For obvious reasons, the visit of Racing 92 to Ulster tomorrow is intriguing for me. I have written down two sentences to sum up Racing’s dilemma. If you ask which is the better side, the most ardent Ulster supporters would concede that one. But under the heat of a Ravenhill European tie, comes the second question: Can Racing’s discipline withstand the massive pressure they will be put under? I’m not sure.

Anyone who saw Ben Tameifuna’s high tackle on Toulon’s Francoic Trinh-Duc last weekend will recognise that trait that is endemic in the Top 14 — the sort that can undo Racing’s good work, time after time. Out-half Finn Russell deserves all the plaudits he is getting at the moment, but that’s not Racing’s problem. If I was coaching in Paris, I am saying ‘If our penalty count is less than eight, we win this game. Can we maintain that when they pull and drag and do everything possible to annoy us?’.

Behaviour is a habit, not an act.

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