The echoes of Munster’s European semi-final defeat to Saracens two years ago may still be ringing in newspaper columns and the minds of supporters but Peter O’Mahony spoke for his squad and management yesterday when he declared his team have long since moved on, and for the better.
Munster and Saracens meet at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on Saturday for a Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, their first meeting since the Englishmen produced a second-half dismantling of their Irish rivals in Dublin that produced a 26-10 scoreline O’Mahony admitted yesterday flattered Rassie Erasmus’s side that afternoon.
Two years on, and with a further last-four loss to Racing 92 12 months ago banked for experience, Munster will try again and captain O’Mahony believes they have never been better equipped to finally break their run of six semi-final defeats since 2008.
A new coach, a developing and flexible gameplan, and a growing belief within an improved squad are the reasons for O’Mahony’s confidence this time around for a player whose immediate reaction to last season’s loss to Racing was that he was sick of learning lessons from such defeats.
“We put in a lot of work over the past 12 months and I think that we are a different animal to what we were; further down the track,” the skipper said yesterday.
“Don’t get me wrong, we are under no illusions as to how tough it is going to be. We are definitely a better side than we were last year. That gives us great confidence. We have big battles this year, games in which we have gone behind, big games that we have ground out; the draw in Exeter.
“You don’t look back a huge amount but there are things that you draw strength from over a season to gather momentum and confidence.
“We have built things up nicely but it all counts for nothing unless you perform at the weekend.
O’Mahony cited an improved gameplan from two years ago, the addition of more strings to the Munster bow in his team’s attack and more resilient defence, one that held quarter-final opponents Edinburgh at bay for long periods at Murrayfield three weeks ago and only conceded one try in a hard-fought 17-13 away victory.
“We have conceded the least amount of tries of anyone in this competition. We are working hard but can get better. We have certainly grabbed a bit of confidence from the last couple of months hopefully that will stand to us at the weekend.” Referring to the Saracens defeat in 2017, O’Mahony added: “That’s the quality side they were. It was 6-3 at half-time. It ended up flattering us a little bit at 26-10; we got a late consolation try. It’s going to be an 85, 90-minutes battle, their fitness is exceptional, their gameplan is very, very difficult to combat. It’s going to have to be the performance of the year from us in every aspect of our game. Their fitness is I reckon the best in the Premiership, well up there in Europe if not the best in Europe as well, so you know, 85 minutes is certainly the way it’s going to run at the weekend.”
Munster’s turnover in personnel since 2017 is greater than Saracens with only nine players from that game likely to play for the province this weekend compared to the 12 or 13 available to that season’s European champions.
Yet as big an impact as the likes of Munster’s signings, including Tadhg Beirne, Chris Farrell, Joey Carbery and Alby Mathewson have had on and off the field, O’Mahony also references the development and improvements made by the players who had been at the club two years ago.
“The (new) guys have had a massive impact. I don’t have to name them off but obviously guys like Tadhg, Joey, Alby, these guys, there’s a group who’ve come in. The group that are here have learnt a huge amount and kicked on as well and we’ve found a good balance.
“Look at last weekend away in Treviso, a difficult place to go and play at the moment. We had a younger team out, they put in a super performance to get back into the game (after going behind) and they end up winning over there. That performance gives us great confidence as a squad.
“You need a bit of luck with regard guys being fit to win these competitions. You need a bit of luck in games but you need your squad to be fit and you need your squad to be playing and training well. Training well in particular, playing well is a given, training well is very important as well. We’re lucky we have that at the moment, the last four games we’ve won I think and that stands to you. They’ve certainly been an integral part of the kind of building of confidence and some good performances.”
Of course, O’Mahony is not so naive as to imagine Saturday’s opponents have gone off the boil, their quarter-final demolition of Glasgow Warriors underlines the size of the task facing Munster, whose captain also has first-hand experience of Saracens mindsets from touring and playing alongside the likes of Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Owen Farrell on the 2017 Lions trip to New Zealand.
“I have to say I was very impressed with the English players across the board. The Saracens players, across the board, were very impressive with regard to their thinking of the game.
“Does it give you an insight? Yeah, it gives you an insight into how good they can be mentally and their thought process on the game, which is useful in some ways. In other ways, you know how good these guys really are behind their performances.