Axel factor presents difficult concoction of emotions

Anthony Foley’s aura will be all around Thomond Park tomorrow, says Ronan O’Gara.

Axel factor presents difficult concoction of emotions

I didn’t get to see this week’s television documentary a year on from the dreadful loss of Anthony Foley. There are things you don’t ‘move on from’. One manages to compartmentalise them, but the vagaries of the Champions Cup fixture programme has placed Racing 92 in Limerick on Saturday, the day before Axel’s anniversary Mass in Killaloe. His aura will be all around Thomond Park tomorrow.

For Racing, that’s a good thing. It helps to remind my team of the Axel factor, and that it will be another emotionally-charged crucible tomorrow. In the week that’s in it, Axel is very much to the forefront of every Munster player’s thinking, every supporter too, with the intense focus of delivering a performance in his honour.

Munster is a difficult assignment for any Champions Cup visitor, but tomorrow is a difficult concoction of emotions for many of us. The Racing players are going to have to be very conscious that he is still a factor. Quinny and myself will probably go to the grave tomorrow before the game. After that, it’s blinkers on, head down.

At the minute, Dan Carter is hoping to play. He will have a fitness test on his calf today, and by lining out he gives belief to everyone else he plays with. He knows, like we all do, that winning at Thomond Park could really set up the season for Racing. With the competitors we have in our dressing room this campaign, we will front up in this game. Anyone who examines our losses in the Top 14 this season at Clermont and La Rochelle — two of the most difficult trips — knows they were one-score games we could have won. When the gun is put to our head, we are capable. Will we have the work-rate to match Munster over 80 minutes? I don’t know the answer yet.

Many readers may hope it’s not the case but we are looking for Leone Nakarawa to underline why he’s the poster boy of Fijian rugby and the talk of Europe. The Olympic gold medal winner delivered a first weekend high of 10 offloads in the win over Leicester last Saturday. For the first 40 minutes, he justified the price of admission on his own.

We had an interesting debate in the coaches meeting last week about his offloading, and whether we should curtail him on the basis he was throwing three or four away per game. And then he makes you look quite silly to be even talking about strait-jacketing him when he produces a dozen unbelievable plays last week. If you stop Leone offloading the ball, you suffocate his spirit of adventure. He’s a freak. 6’ 7” and 19st 3, but so co-ordinated and possessing brilliant stability from assiduous work in the gym during the week. It’s not Fijian natural brilliance — he works on his stability, his one leg balance work — his levers are absolutely enormous.

It’s so refreshing in this day and age of prima donnas and fellas thinking they are better than they are, to be coaching this fella. If we had Donncha Ryan fit, we could play him in the back row but in Europe, with the speed of the game, you need mobile second rows.

Munster didn’t start any bush fires in Castres on Sunday, but got out of there — through the mercy of referee Mathew Carley — with two points. The EPCR’s head of match officials, Joel Jutge, was fuming over the decision not to award a penalty and yellow card to Robin Copeland for his last-minute indiscretion. It certainly helped to fuel the conspiracy theories in France about the impartiality of Champions Cup refereeing.

It was a bad day for the kickers, Bleyendaal and Benjamin Urdapilleta, out of hand and off the tee. Without excusing them, I’ve played there and when the wind is like that it is a really difficult venue to play in. There are no consistent wind trends down there but that does not excuse some of the inconsistencies out of hand.

If you talk to any tour golfer, they will always speak of having a go-to swing, a tried and trusted fade or draw in clutch moments when they have to hit the fairway. The equivalent for a young ten in rugby should be the spiral kick, but the number of players who work to ensure its consistency is remarkably low nowadays. I’m flummoxed by that.

What do they go to when the end over end doesn’t work, and leaves a kicker open to disaster? You make two knock-ons, what do you do? You attack the 10 channel and play one-out rugby. Same with a kicker: He wants an easy line kick to find a rhythm. But if your only weapon is the end-over-end, it’s a tightrope. There’s a massive and inexplicable emphasis on kicking end-over-end, and I cannot fathom why there aren’t more kickers perfecting their spiral.

Zebo and Keith Earls looked sharp in Castres. Simon is getting close to that time when he makes a decision on his future in the province and he’s not short of offers or incentives.

Earlsie is in brilliant form and while many might think a trip beyond the Raheen roundabout is too far away for him, he’s a competitor and, at one point, he was very close to signing for Saracens, because he was smitten by their project.

Careers aren’t that long and the proliferation of injuries these days makes that an all-too-real fact of life as a professional rugby player. I’ve been listening to this debate about the spiralling rate of injuries, particularly in the Premiership, this season, and the point which has struck me most is the amount of contact work some teams do during the week.

At Racing, we do no contact from Monday to Friday but perhaps that’s the Top 14, where the physicality is unforgiving. It’s all about how you manage your players, but it’s always been that way hasn’t it? You want your lads doing their contact on a Saturday for 80 minutes. If a guy hasn’t played for three weeks, perhaps he needs contact with a few confidence boosters on a Wednesday. But you can’t play Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, certainly not in France.

Because it’s a 23-man game anyway, every player gets his chance to make a point on gameday. There’s a particular time and a place for midweek grunt, but it’s two or three times a year. You can’t have a guy going around landing sly digs during the week because a) the players preparing themselves for a Saturday get pissed off, b) you are not getting anything constructive out of the session.

Of course, when Saturdays pile onto Saturdays, the emphasis becomes more about squad than 15 players. And from a coaching players point of view, we are constantly looking for more from players. At times in the Top 14 I do wonder when does it become unsustainable.

That’s the difference at home in Ireland. It’s all geared to the six games in Europe’s Champions Cup. But in my fifth season in the Top 14, the challenges, even though they come thick and fast as a defence coach, are intoxicating. The challenge I enjoy most is getting your message understood by the players.

Last week, for example, one session didn’t go as well as it could have, and I knew that. With the difference in language, it’s still not easy. Out of respect, everything has to be explained in French first, but you’re trading in English and thinking that way too.

I am trying to put things in place that I, as a ball-player, intensely disliked. Such as ensuring the out-half doesn’t have time on the ball. But wherever you go, the key is how the bibs perform Monday to Friday — that dictates how your team will go on a Saturday. There can be an edge in training without the cheap shots or a huge amount of physical contact. And in Paris this week, we’ve trained well.

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