DONAL LENIHAN: The only way is up now for Munster

Don’t for a minute underestimate the value of Munster’s Heineken Cup win over Racing Metro on Sunday.

Yes, all the advantages were in the home court from the outset and increased with the dismissal of Antoine Batut early in the game.

But if anything that decision piled further pressure on the hosts to deliver.

Bear in mind that this was a Munster side with just two players from the team which won the Heineken Cup final in 2008 and whose collective experience in European competition was minuscule compared to what has gone before.

Consider also that when the pressure was on to deliver in key games in the campaign — away to Racing Metro and Edinburgh — the younger generation found it difficult to cope with the weight of expectation.

Think for a moment of the consequences had they failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented to them on Sunday and Leinster advanced to the quarter-final at their expense. The Munster supporters, by and large, are a patient bunch but failure to secure that bonus point win would have left this young squad with a heavy burden to carry.

Now the spoils of victory should help them in their quest to emulate the deeds of the not too distant past even if Heineken Cup success this season looks a step too far. While I have every confidence that Munster will only thrive and prosper in the role of underdog when they travel to The Stoop in April — and I give them every chance of rattling the Harlequins’ cage with a win a distinct possibility — a draw that pits them against likely semi-finalist Clermont Auvergne in France looks challenging in the extreme. Just ask Leinster.

That however is for another day. Of far more significance is the fact that a new generation of Munster players have achievements of their own to store in the memory bank. It helps also that a number of this developing group shared an unbeaten run of six from six in the pool stages last season to underpin their fast growing European experience. The painful defeat to Ulster at Thomond Park in the quarter-final put a bit of dent in that however.

In those two away games against Racing and Edinburgh, Munster imploded, with questionable decision making, silly individual errors and poor discipline letting them down at crucial moments. Failing to register a four try winning bonus against an under strength Ulster side over Christmas in the Rabo coupled with that devastating loss at home to Cardiff Blues undermined confidence even further going into the final two group games in the Heineken Cup. But the manner with which the players took on the responsibility to deliver augurs well for the future.

Over the last few weeks I have been approached by a number of well meaning Munster supporters asking questions of Rob Penney. All I can say is that they were well meaning but ill-informed. The experience that Penney brings to the table from his days in Canterbury when dealing with talented but inexperienced young players coming through the system has been a key element in Munster’s development this season. The positivity he exudes is exactly what is required with this group and despite the enormously frustrating level of unforced errors that have proliferated Munster’s performances this season, he has always emphasised the positives with the players.

That was not always the case in recent seasons when young players were berated for their shortcomings.

On Sunday, Penney got his reward and the squad will grow as a result. That April quarter-final offers an appetising target on the horizon and Harlequins had better be prepared for what’s coming down the line. It is a disadvantage to Munster’s aspirations that Conor O’Shea is directing operations in London as he will appreciate better that any English based coach what awaits his impressive squad.

By the time that game comes around, I expect Munster to be in even better shape than they are. Last Wednesday I highlighted the fact that Munster need a bigger ball carrying presence in their back row mix, and well and all as the combination of Peter O’Mahony, James Coughlan and Tommy O’Donnell did against Racing, the addition of CJ Stander to that mix is one of the reasons why I would give Munster a big chance of upsetting the odds in London.

Stander was superb for the A side against Plymouth in Temple Hill on Friday night and with a bit more game time certain to come his way with the senior side in the Rabo during the Six Nations, should be primed and ready to go by the time the internationals return to the fold by the end of March.

Stander looks like he has the quality to fill another key piece of the ever evolving Munster jigsaw and with the prospect of a fit and hungry Paul O’Connell to add to the mix, no wonder Penney is relishing the challenges ahead.

In the midst of all the hype entering last weekend’s flurry of Heineken Cup activity, the changing of the guard in the Ireland squad with Jamie Heaslip assuming the captaincy for the Six Nations over Brian O’Driscoll was lost a little. It was a huge call by Declan Kidney and one that O’Driscoll obviously wasn’t prepared for or happy with. What O’Driscoll has achieved has been phenomenal. To captain Ireland for close on a decade required selfless dedication, remarkable consistency and unrivalled leadership skills. He provided all three elements.

In his absence last November, the dynamic of the squad changed dramatically under Heaslip when, a bit like Munster, the pressure was piled on the shoulders of a fresh squad of players to secure a top eight seeding for the fast approaching World Cup draw.

Argentina have been a bogey team for Ireland for years but the manner with which they were dispatched in that final game of the autumn series convinced Kidney to stick with his newly-established leadership group with the 2015 World Cup in mind.

It was a brave call and one that he is perfectly entitled to make. Nobody understands the dynamics and workings of the squad than those immersed in the centre of it. While I can understand his decision and the reasons behind it, I believe that if O’Driscoll was happy with his fitness and unconcerned that the added responsibilities would impact in any way on his preparation for the Six Nations, then he deserved to retain the captaincy for one more campaign. Having signalled his intention to retire over the next 18 months, changing the captain from the outset of next season still affords the new man plenty of time to grow into the role before the 2015 World Cup.

Suggestions however that the decision could cost O’Driscoll the captaincy of the Lions next summer is nonsense.

Having captained Ireland 83 times, he hardly needs to prove his candidacy for the tour by leading them on five more occasions. Martin Johnson and Paul O’Connell led the Lions in 1997 and 2009 respectively when neither were captain of their country at the time of their appointment.

Warren Gatland knows exactly what O’Driscoll has to offer and if his fitness and form shines through in the Six Nations then for me, he remains the outstanding candidate to lead the Lions charge.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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