For all the buzz generated by an exciting bonus-point derby victory over Connacht last week, Peter O’Mahony’s return to the fray also coincided with a return to Munster basics.
Back-to-back victories in the Guinness PRO14 over noisy neighbours to the west and east have primed Munster for the next two weeks of Heineken Champions Cup pool play, a crucial fortnight the province has to get right if it is to reach the European knockout stages for the 18th time. The mission starts Friday night with a round-five clash against Gloucester at Kingsholm, as Munster bid to make amends for a narrow round-four loss last month at Castres that has given all four teams in Pool 2 a sniff of a quarter-final berth with two games to play.
Rather than dwell on the mistakes that contributed to the 13-12 defeat at the home of the French Top14 champions, Munster skipper O’Mahony reports a successful attempt to put right some of the wrongs of recent weeks’ performances. Last Saturday’s 31-24 win in Galway ticked a lot of the boxes on the to-do list, not least an effective lineout and maul, a key platform that had been malfunctioning, denying Munster either victories or try bonus points as scoring opportunities went a begging at crucial moments.
It was perhaps no surprise that the upturn coincided with O’Mahony’s return to action, fit and refreshed after a two-week Christmas period spent in the gym, rather than on the field, as his team lost at Ulster and then beat Leinster 26-17 in a fractious game at Thomond Park.
Either way, the skipper was pleased to be trending in the right direction ahead of the trip to Gloucester.
“It is always something, not giving away any secrets, our mauls are very important for us. It’s something that probably hadn’t functioned over the last five or six weeks,” said O’Mahony. “It was good to see some of the work that we put in in the last couple of weeks coming through, but it is an ongoing process.
“We certainly have done a bit of work on [the lineout]. I was happy with the way it went at the weekend. I think we had 100% ball-winning, which was a good start and our maul certainly functioned a bit better last weekend, but there is always room to improve. We got caught high a couple of times, there were a couple of inaccuracies, a couple of deliveries that we can get better, but it was certainly positive for us.
“It was nice to be back in. After a couple of booster weeks, I was looking forward to getting back playing. There was a great buzz on Monday coming back into a European week and that’s always a good sign.”
O’Mahony is hopeful of playing a full part on Friday, as he recovers from a bang on his hip sustained against Connacht, a minor knock that did not detract from the benefits of those “booster weeks”.
“It’s no secret that we are well managed from the IRFU side of things. The [strength and conditioning] group and management were keen to get me a bit of a rest and to get a good clatter of gym stuff and a S&C booster week on top of a rest week, as well.
“Sometimes, it is hard when you are a player. You obviously want to play rugby and certainly for me I get a benefit out of consistency in games and that kind of thing, but you trust the backroom guys and the S&C group here. Their thought process of picking these weeks is to get a bit of work done and keep you staying fresh for what will, hopefully, be a long season.”
Victory at Kingsholm on Friday will go a long way towards ensuring it is a lengthy campaign, but head coach Johann van Graan was right to describe the four-way qualification battle as being on a “knife-edge”, with four points separating pool leaders Munster and fourth-placed Gloucester.
“It’s always the way with Europe and us,” said O’Mahony. “You can see it’s wide open. Cup rugby, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s very accurate in this scenario. It’s hugely important that we certainly get our performance, because if we don’t get our performance, we are not going to be winning this weekend.”