Tomorrow evening, as the first half of the All-Ireland hurling final replay gathers momentum, I’ll be in Castres’s Stade Pierre Antoine, preparing for our eighth tie of the French Top 14 campaign.
‘Our’ was always Munster. Or sometimes Cork. Now it’s Racing Metro.
Since the last column I penned at the end of June, life has shifted to Paris and the other side of the white line. The security of Jessica and the four children came in August and stopped me from trying to swallow a new rugby coaching career whole.
Cork lost a Munster hurling final to Limerick in those early July days but three weeks ago, my match-tracker app had them ahead by a point with added time elapsed in Croke Park.
That Sunday, Racing were at home in Colombes to Perpignan (winning 19-16). During the warm-up, I allowed myself illicit peaks at the iPhone before getting a more complete picture from The Sunday Game that evening. It was understandable if marginally unprofessional of me. There can’t be a repeat tomorrow.
Oddly, Racing are flying to Castres this afternoon, something we’ve not done this season. The normal routine is to fly or TGV it to away matches on game-day. It’s not something Munster would have chanced in my time but that’s not to say the Racing way is wrong. I often thought when Munster were playing at Murrayfield at 7.30 in the evening, why we hadn’t got a flight at 11am that morning, instead of travelling the day before? Different experiences are opening the mind to different ways of doing things.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy and I had a phone chat before the All-Ireland final, not so much about hurling tactics, because I wouldn’t have a clue, but about the difference between being in finals and winning them.
Myself and JBM just click. Any time a Cork youngster of my vintage watched sport, he was invariably starring. I’ve always found him easy to talk to. He never has his guard up. He shares ideas, comfortable in his own ability, I guess.
Getting to the final is one thing, but the winning of it is everything. That’s not because it’s a successful county like Cork, that’s something for anyone serious about their sport. There’s a good achievement in getting to the final, but the difference between taking that final step, and not taking it, is big.
There are grades here. Losing a semi-final is worse. You don’t get back to a semi-final automatically the next season, you slip all the way back to the foot of the mountain. But if you make the final, it’s a significant achievement in itself for a group of players. It’s money in the bank for next season.
There’s something about preparing for a final that’s different to any other game. It’s an end game. Going out at the semi-final stage leaves you with a series of ifs and buts. It’s annoying. It festers.
Just like the Heineken Cup semi-final from last season won’t let me alone. I know why. Because I know I’m not getting another chance to put it right. And more importantly, because it was there for Munster. I still believe that. The Clermont thing is getting worse for me every time I think of it, and I still picture that game so perfectly. The admiration for my then team-mates for their doggedness because at times it felt like Clermont were so superior to us
But that defiance, that ability to get into an opposition’s head and say, ‘you better put us away because if you don’t we are going to get ya...’ was always there. When we were at our peak, that Clermont game was a 10-point victory for us, and that’s where we have to acknowledge that Munster have slipped a little bit now.
But the respect for Munster is such a valuable resource for them. I see it here in Paris. They welcomed me with a handshake that acknowledged a remarkable team which achieved remarkable things. It’s not late tactical calls that stick in my head from last year’s semi-final — that’s a feel on the day thing. It’s the small moments, the inches. The bounce of the ball. Why it popped up late on for Felix (Jones) and Casey (Laulala), and nearly, and nearly. But that’s sport.
Straight after the drawn hurling final, you could see the happier team was Clare but any reasonable calculation in the cold light of day would indicate the happier team should have been Cork. They were never ahead until the 70th minute. If you could script a win, you wouldn’t fare chance that ending. The message for JBM this weekend must be how delighted they are to have another chance. The term ‘legend’ is thrown about far too liberally in Irish sport. Munster rugby has had its quota over the last 15 years, in Cork GAA there are a handful. One of them is Jimmy Barry-Murphy because time spent in the jersey, and achievement in that jersey. There is always someone in the dressing room that the opposition will be intimidated by. But among his own, he inspires. That’s what legends do.
I’ll return in more detail to Racing Metro in the coming weeks, but the initial months have been encouraging, if daunting. The management team of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit have been exceptionally welcoming — when you feel worthy in any job, it makes it worthwhile and that’s how I feel.
I was taken aback by all the huge level of respect they have for a special team like Munster. Contrary to the popular myth about Parisien arrogance, the group here are very respectful, which is all you ask of people in life.
Rugby is huge though it’s difficult to have 66 million people plugged into it. In Paris, we are a dot, and that means that players aren’t as accountable walking down the street as you would be in Cork or Limerick. But there is huge interest level, especially on TV. And the Top 14 is only getting bigger here.
It was a slightly unreal scenario I began with in the first six weeks here, minus the family. It was just like being on a Lions tour. It was just full-on work, straight in at the deep end. But that was helpful too because first impressions do last and people were wondering was this fella here on a jolly or not.
But I’ve my own goals and standards, and I have to keep to them. I feel I have to be contributing something here every day. Otherwise you are a fraud.