Ronan O’Gara.


Zebo absence spooked Murray more than Racing did

In my early weeks in Christchurch I picked up some helpful pointers from the Crusaders’ head coach Scott Robertson, writes Ronan O’Gara.

Zebo absence spooked Murray more than Racing did

We were going through the Crusaders’ roster and we got talking about trusting his big players. The key men were

described as such because he knew he could trust them for the pressure games. He relied on their experience. That comment resonated with me.

When Johann van Graan came in as the new coach at Munster, he might have read a bit about Simon Zebo and he probably thought of Zebo as I thought of Zebo in the first six months we knew him: This guy is a bit of a waster.

But he doesn’t know Zebo just as I didn’t know Zebo, and it was a mistake not to start him for Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday in Bordeaux.

Leave aside for one moment that Zebo is the record try-scorer for Munster and a proven big occasion player. He is a genuine threat every time he gets the ball.

Also, given the number of experienced absentees in the Munster backline on the day through injury, Zebo’s presence was another compelling reason to have him starting the game.

I can’t agree with van Graan that Munster had world-class players starting against Racing in the back three. I don’t believe that’s accurate, notwithstanding the subjective definition of ‘world class’.

This column’s admiration for Keith Earls is well known but Andrew Conway is not there yet because he hasn’t played enough games at this level.

The consequences of dropping Zebo were manifold but the most fascinating one was how it spooked Conor Murray. It was the first time in a Munster jersey I’ve seen Murray that rattled, and a lot of it could have been down to not having Zebo there.

There was a different chemistry in the backline with Zebo excluded, and by ‘different’ I don’t mean better. A lot of Conor’s discomfort came down to the fact the telepathic relationship he has with Zebo was removed from the equation.

They mightn’t have to say much to one another but they get great confidence from knowing the other is there and ready to make it work. Conor gets a kick out of laughing at Zebo, knowing he’s Mr Flash, but also aware that he can and will do it.

They seem very good for each other. The nine never gets rattled in games or is breathing hard (because he’s such a fit warrior). But you could see Sunday he was rattled and you could see a sense of the unsettled week he was after.

He wouldn’t have been alone. It would have affected others too. It was a big call. Defensively, there’s no full-back or wing who doesn’t get stepped at some point, but Alex Wooten, for all his potential, wasn’t a better defensive option than Zebo for that game, so the decision doesn’t stack up.

Was it the winning and losing of the semi-final? I don’t think it was. The ease with which Racing dispatched Munster meant they were a yard sharper and smarter around the pitch, but it was the unsettling of Munster for sure.

It’s important to underline that none of this is intended to beat Munster up. It’s very easy to do that after a defeat. I played in 10 European semi-finals and on six of those occasions I woke up Monday morning in the same black headspace. A defeat is a great opportunity to grow if the right learnings are applied.

Also, to zoom in on Munster’s failings takes away the important wide-angle perspective of how good Racing 92 actually were. To point the finger at defensive lapses for the first half tries overlooks the sheer dynamism and class the French side brought to the table.

We haven’t seen that show of power and panache very often, and very few teams in world rugby would have lived with Vatakawa and Thomas. And the guy who hasn’t got a lot of credit is Pat Lambie, who was exceptional.

I know these players. Henry Chavancy isn’t the best passer in the world but you could build a serious French team around him. Once you know what he brings and what

buttons to push, you get a monster return out of him.

Maxime Machenaud is a player I’ve been preaching a bit too hard about because I’ve seen him week in week out. You saw again the influence he had on the game last Sunday and he’s added kicking consistency now to move him into an elite level. When the tee comes out now, you feel he is going to kick it.

Before it was literally 50-50 whether it went over.

There’s another theory. Is there any possibility that Munster were over-confident?

It’s hard to imagine that given the Munster culture but but perhaps after four European Cup duels, each of which Munster could have won (and did in three instances), that they overlooked the serial French trait of getting themselves up for the occasion when the whiff of a final and a trophy fills the air.

This was a semi-final. It’s like the French championship and ‘Le Barrage’, the play-off weekend when 3rd plays 6th and 4th meets 5th, and everything goes up around 50%.

A game on the Friday night, DJ banging out the music, rocking the Velodrome in Marseille last year, 70,000 fans. Adrenaline rush. It’s what gets the juices going. The Top 14 is a marathon, a slogfest, and the boys are interested in winning home games.

But you can’t have them up for 26 games a year and then ask them to do it for the Champions Cup too. It doesn’t work like that. The quality at Racing 92 is there and Munster knew that.

Nyanga, Ryan, Nakawara. They were going to be humming for this game and, believe me, it will go up another notch for the final. The Racing Munster should have beaten at the U Arena was never going to be the same outfit they were confronted with in Bordeaux. I hope that didn’t get lost, but maybe it did.

It’s difficult to accurately reflect on the last 50 minutes of Sunday’s semi. It’s in the DNA of French rugby to do just enough and had Munster that genuine capacity to come back into the game, it would have re-awakened Racing.

There was a time once when Teddy Thomas locked his car keys in his apartment and arrived back into French camp in Marcoussis late.

He was sent back out on his heels. He’s a success story now though. He’s always been a good kid but as young lads do, he has managed a few stupid moments in his time.

Now though he has got his attitude properly adjusted and Leinster would do well to keep him in their eyeline for 80 minutes in Bilbao.

He was on fire in the Six Nations, and had he not been jettisoned after the Scottish game for non-rugby reasons, he would have been challenging Jacob Stockdale for winger of the tournament. He needed to settle and mature and required a bit of guidance.

Before he was happy to be involved. Getting free kit would float his boat at one stage. Now he’s serious about his job and his progress and he channels his energy into performances on a consistent basis.

Leinster will be hot favourites for the final, and justifiably so. The relentlessness of their forwards is something and their backline something else.

Robbie Henshaw was out for 10 weeks with a shoulder dislocation and was immense last Saturday in the Aviva. His capacity in a Leinster jersey to throw miss passes is probably not something he gets to do in green and it is evident he has flourished under the Leinster coaching staff.

With the way Ireland play, the perception would be he carries the ball a lot and doesn’t have a breadth of skills. He has great skills.

Hunger is a mighty sauce. Missing out on a Grand Slam, recognising the importance of a summer tour and being fit for Australia. Henshaw fit and healthy still has obstacles in front of him with the World Cup on the horizon. The competition for places is severe.

Is Aki at 12? Ringrose and Henshaw have to be thinking they are going to be on the team, Chris Farrell is aiming to have that same Henshaw desire when he gets back fit and firing. There are subplots all over the place.

I don’t want to take away from Leinster, but I was bitterly disappointed with the Scarlets. A player chip-kicking the ball 10 yards in a European Cup semi-final with a 10% chance of getting the ball back? That’s not playing smart cup rugby. And that was in the first half!

That’s the definition of forcing it.

Jonny Sexton was the essence of smart rugby. But he had a bit of an edge too, a point to prove. There was plenty of Scarlets’ sledging in the PRO12 semi-final last year in Dublin and Jonny doesn’t forget. He was buzzing for last Saturday. A bit of unfinished business with these Welsh boys.

Racing 92 will present a sterner challenge. Cullen, Lancaster, and Co. know that. They’ve bigger men to be dealing with. Power counts. Racing have X-Factor backs too, Llanelli thought they did, but they couldn’t produce on the day.

It’s empty-the-tank territory for Racing now. How good was Carter when he came on again last Sunday? Every game now is his last game in Europe.

It will be a big thing for a lot of charismatic players at the club. Yanick Nyanga might be the team manager next year but he showed what he can do on the field again in Bordeaux.

Maybe not over a full season at this stage, but for big moments, in big games.

Racing will again face the best team in Europe in the final, just as they did two years ago against Saracens. Leinster are so familiar with each other, so used to winning, so trusting of the guy next to him.

But I repeat the message from a week ago. Racing’s big players will love this. They won’t pitch up in Bilbao to enjoy the experience. They’re coming for the booty.

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