FIRST off, I want to address the Donnacha Ryan move from Munster to Racing 92.
There’s been a lot of angst and disappointment among Munster fans he is leaving. There should be. If he wasn’t very good, it wouldn’t hurt and the loss wouldn’t be so keenly felt.
He’s an extremely valued member of the Munster unit, he’s learned from the best in Paul O’Connell. Donnacha had to be patient, he had a look at himself, got the most out of himself and we think there might be a little more to come. His values are very good and when they are so, he can add a lot to our club environment. We need a lot more than Donnacha Ryan, that’s for sure. Players like that are not frequently available, so from Racing’s point of view, it’s a great signing.
How involved was I? Of course, I went after him initially but when it came to the contracts and the small print, I stayed well away from everything. An individual has to decide for him or herself what they want to do. With the volatility in French rugby, there’s no point signing a contract thinking, ‘I’ll be here forever and a day’. Even in recent weeks, Donnacha would have been a close observer of the ‘fusion’ with Stade Francais which looked like it might scupper any hope of a deal for him. So it was really important that Donnacha, or any player, makes up their own mind rather than me trying to convince them it’s the right thing to do. Only Donnacha and his girlfriend can make that decision. But with a president like Jacky Lorenzetti, once Donnacha Ryan was happy to come and sign a contract, then he will be here in Paris next season.
France is one of the few countries in my career that appreciates the value of experience. I accept there are two sides to that, it can work for and against you. Donnacha Ryan has played plenty of rugby, but it’s not as if he’s flogged at 33.
But in Ireland, it appears the minute you are over 30, you’re finished. In New Zealand, anyone north of 27 is a has-been. There are differing mindsets in countries and cultures and across sporting codes. Age shouldn’t really be an issue. I keep in contact with a lot of the Munster players and obviously, if there is an opportunity to come to France, I’d like to think I’d be the first one they’d ring because of a career-long bond. I have stated in the Examiner column before, nobody wants the Murrays, Earls’ or Zebos leaving Munster. We’d never want that. This was a different situation. Donnacha Ryan’s hand was forced — he’s 33, the same age as Jamie Heaslip, but Jamie was offered a national IRFU contract.
That decision triggers several others. Donnacha has to look at what’s best for Donnacha. I expect Jamie signed a new deal before the England game, and to that point, he would have been viewed as bulletproof. And very central to the show. Donnacha didn’t start the first game against Scotland (which Ireland lost), and evidently, Lansdowne Road and David Nucifora had a look at the succession planning and gambled Donnacha would get a really good provincial contract from Munster sufficient to keep him in the set-up. The gamble failed.
Whatever people’s impression of Ryan the player is from the outside, I’m not sure the public have got a handle on the real Donnacha. He is a really interesting character. There is more to him than rugby. He has always been a little bit away from the pack in terms of furthering himself. He realises rugby is going to stop some day and he wants to be in a good position. A lot of players think the rollercoaster continues. It doesn’t.
He’s also a very respectful individual. My dealings with him go back nearly 12 years when he was considering going to Northampton as a young fella. He was nearly signed for Saints, and we have a conversation that moved our relationship to a different level, something solid. Somehow there was going to be a lasting substance to a friendship after that serious conversation. I told him I didn’t think he should leave Munster, that he was doing it for the wrong reasons, because he was frustrated.
The reality many years on is that he has become a fundamental part of the Munster machine. He calls the line-outs, he sets standards. But the show goes on. We thought there’d be pickets on the streets of Limerick when Paul O’Connell signed for Toulon. Like Paulie, Donnacha represents everything good about Munster and I accept totally the legitimacy of supporter frustration and disappointment. But there’s also a recognition and a respect there, that he has done his time and his service to Munster. Fair play, let him go away and earn a few bob and learn another language and get another rugby education. Racing 92 thinks he still has something else to prove. I know he does. He would have enjoyed aspects of our 27-24 victory over Clermont Auvergne last Saturday We are on our knees in the Top 14 but it kept us alive. We have two home games, Pau and Bordeaux, but we will probably have to win on the road somewhere at Montpellier, Stade or Toulouse to make top six.
Toulouse isn’t the club it once was and it’s not a squad bursting with confidence either. There are good reasons for all that but it’s not the ideal frame of mind for a Champions Cup quarter-final, but Munster aren’t idiots. Toulouse are minus a couple of internationals but they are a big side, not just in terms of European reputation but sheer size. If you don’t hit them in the right areas, they won’t fall. Munster have to make sure tomorrow at Thomond Park they get a good shot at them. If they don’t, Toulouse will keep going. Physically they are one of the biggest, heaviest teams in France but with the intensity, Munster will bring, I’m unsure Toulouse will be able for it. They can play for sure, and if given a dry day (which looks unlikely), it would be a cracking game. Toulouse, as ever, is a team capable of everything from the horrendous to the sublime, and if there’s rain, I don’t see how Toulouse win. With Munster’s fitness, I think they will try their move game to another level and run Toulouse off the pitch. I’d be shocked if Munster don’t win, but this is sport.
My information is Francis Saili has made a phenomenal recovery from his knee injury and will be available tomorrow, though won’t start. It underlines the strength now of the Munster backline a dozen supporters can punt on picking a back three, and not one could be certain they’d get it right. You could have Sweetnam, Earls, Zebo, Conway, or Ronan O’Mahony. Every one of them is performing this season. I think Conor Murray will play. These are the days you want one of the best players in the world on your XV. He sets the tone for Munster. But as we’ve seen against England, it’s not a world-ender.
Munster will face Saracens in the semis if they prevail at Thomond. Of that I’m sure. I saw Sarries play Bath last weekend and it only confirmed for me they are unquestionably the best team in Europe. They absolutely obliterated a Bath team stacked with England and Welsh internationals. Saracens are playing a different game. The Lions management are going to find it very hard to leave Chris Ashton out of their considerations for New Zealand. The one man in Europe guaranteed to score tries. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I like him. He’s a poacher but his work-rate is also incredible. He’s a real competitor on the pitch so what do you expect him to be? Nice?
Calling the Clermont v Toulon game accurately presupposes I know what Clermont will produce. I don’t. They struggled out of the gate against us last Saturday but once they got into their bootstraps, they were very impressive. But they face a side with genuine European pedigree which believes it belongs in the sunshine days of April and May. And which know how mentally brittle Clermont can be in knockout rugby.
I made a few notes last weekend watching Wasps play Worcester, but by the end of the game, I had lost all confidence in the Premiership leaders’ ability to put it up to Leinster at the Aviva tomorrow. They won 40-33, but conceded five tries and struggled against 14 men for too long.
In the space of a week, I don’t think it’s possible to turn around that kind of error-strewn performance. It was like an exhibition game, and given the intensity they will face in Dublin, which will be ramped up tenfold, there’s no way Wasps can contain Leinster. Leo Cullen’s men will go after Cipriani and Gopperth, a pair Wasps see as a strength but Leinster may look at a different way.
They will have a few tactical things up their sleeve for Willie Le Roux and may bombard him with high ball. Kearney and Heaslip are two big losses for a European quarter-final, but not as significant when the tie is in Dublin.
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