England’s new caretaker coach has impressed everybody with his public utterances to date and his recognition of the need for the English squad to reconnect with its people after the World Cup in New Zealand. Lancaster could well be about to find out that coaching England is a great job, apart from the matches.
Of the seven teams representing the Aviva Premiership in this season’s tournament, Saracens are the sole representative in the last eight. Of the remaining six, only Harlequins finished with sufficient points to secure a consolation prize in the Amlin Challenge Cup as one of the three best runners up. The other two slots went to Scarlets and Biarritz Olympique.
The dark cloud hanging over English rugby loitered above Stadium MK in Milton Keynes for a few hours on Saturday evening as a bullish and confident Northampton side arrived from their home base 30 minutes down the road intent on putting manners once and for all on the menace from Munster. The coaching duo of Jim Mallinder and Dorian West had made no secret of the fact that they felt cheated by Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal at the death in Thomond Park back in November and were about to put the record straight.
All well and good to talk the talk. West, a son of Leicester Tigers when they revelled in intimidating all comers to Welford Road in the days of Martin Johnson and Dean Richards, by all accounts didn’t endear himself to some of the Munster players prior to kick off as the ground rules were being set.
On the field, Northampton were also up to their tricks with the water carrier wetting the ball before restarts into Munster and rubbing it in the mud before lineouts. That type of thing was commonplace in the old days when we would travel to Thomond Park for big Munster Cup games but I thought we’d moved on.
James Coughlan, however, has been around a long time and spotted exactly what was going on and put a bit of manners on the Saints offender early in the second-half. It didn’t happen again. When will these teams realise that the last thing you offer Munster is a gripe. If Munster feel disrespected, someone is going to pay. Smoother them with platitudes and they won’t know what to do.
Last Saturday was Munster’s best display for a long, long time, with the next generation leading the way. In an interview I conducted with Paul O’Connell a few days ago (which forms part of our Six Nations coverage next week) the Munster captain made it absolutely clear the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Mike Sherry and others don’t want to come into the team and tread water. They want to be the best players on the field.
That was very much in evidence last Saturday when Simon Zebo was man of the match, while Murray and O’Mahony strutted around the pitch as if to the manor born. Those two will become the standard bearers when O’Connell and O’Gara depart the scene. Murray’s opposite number Lee Dickson, who has just been elevated to the England squad by Lancaster, were at each other’s throat from the start to finish culminating in that joint yellow card in the second-half.
Right from the start the Northampton man did everything to put Murray off on the put in to every Munster scrum. In the scrum prior to the second Saints penalty try, Dickson stood on Murray’s knee while he was on the ground so something had to give. It was inevitable it would boil over at some stage but Murray made it quite clear to his English counterpart who the international scrum half was.
Zebo was always capable of producing in the manner he did on Saturday. He has the X Factor. At times, however, his work rate off the ball, his concentration levels and aspects of his defence have let him down. That is why, apart altogether from his three tries, his performance was so noteworthy at the weekend.
With him, you will come to accept there is an entertainer bottled up, bursting to get out. I was sure when he made the intercept for his second try that we were going to be treated to a Chris Ashton swan dive. Thank God he refrained, although he did confess to me afterwards that he thought about it. He rounded it off by making the Z sign to the large Munster contingent behind the goal with his hands.
The last emerging talent to display that confidence on registering a hat trick was some guy called O’Driscoll in Paris in 2000. Back then everyone wanted to know what the triangle he made with his hands meant. All sorts of theories abounded in subsequent days. Turns out it was a reference to the sprint button for Jonah Lomu rugby on the PlayStation. The folly of youth. O’Driscoll didn’t do too badly afterwards and if Zebo’s confidence and natural ability can be channelled in the right direction, then Munster and Ireland have a gem.
DESPITE the issues surrounding the scrum on Saturday, Munster thrived because of the magnificence of their phase play. Time and again they managed to extend their phases into double digits with their protection of the ball in the contact area of the highest quality. It was inevitable that space would eventually open up and when it did, at last Munster’s execution was exemplary. The reward — five tries.
In adversity, a new back row combination started with Donnacha Ryan starting in the back row for the first time in the Heineken Cup this season. He was magnificent and along with Coughlan — who just gets better and better with every outing and was finally rewarded with a place in the Irish squad yesterday — and O’Mahony. They outplayed Saints much vaunted back row, two of whom — Phil Dowson and Callum Clark — are in the England squad, off the park.
With our best ever return from a Heineken Cup pool stage, three quarter finalists and a minimum of one semi finalist (but in all probability two), you have to ask the question why the IRFU wish to affect the balance of things with their new policy on non Irish-eligible players. A sensible implementation of the existing policy would be more than sufficient. The IRFU are set to benefit from a minimum dividend of €1.68m from the ERC on the back of the achievements of the provinces so far and will also receive two rental payments given that the Aviva Stadium will host Leinster’s quarter final as well as the semi final featuring either Munster or Ulster.
Leave well alone.