IT’S never 20 years already since we checked back into Merignac Airport in Bordeaux with that seminal 31-25 Heineken Cup win over Toulouse in our back pockets?
Munster’s current state of being — hardly well-being — reminds me a bit of that early chapter. How we were written off, a 10-man team who could only play one way and would be eviscerated on the rock-hard surface of Stade Lescure by the talents of Toulouse. But that was the day everyone saw that Munster knew our own instincts, and when to trust them, when it came to playing rugby.
Sunday in Paris against Racing 92 could be such a moment for this Munster team. The current group needs to appreciate the sense of despair and dread out there at the moment amongst supporters. I don’t even live in the country, but I can feel it. With a good enough team, to be tonked in the manner they were at Ravenhill last week would boil the blood of a previous generation of players.
Sunday’s key Pool 4 game is fascinating because Munster, whatever you say about them, still have a lot of lads who are mentally strong competitors, and that gives me a little hope. And they know this is 80 minutes where they have to empty the tank. That creates, as I know from experience, a horrible, horrible feeling in your stomach. That’s the only way I can describe it.
Imagine going to the La Defense Arena with Gaillimh and Claw. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? They wouldn’t know what to make of the place with the music and the ‘boom boom’ noise. Claw would finish with the knees skinned off him from the surface. He’d be told to use Vaseline for the knees and he’d be ‘No f**king way am I putting that shit on’.
This is one of those afternoons, as Ken O’Connell would say, where all you need boys is your boots and your gumshield.
No need for the Bose headphones.
Bring the Larkham change-up in style, of course, but bring the belligerence. On Sunday the pack needs to be wired a la the dogs of yesterday. I hope they are.
These are the occasions when Irish emotion, channelled in the right way, can be a very powerful tool. What the Munster supporters will ask for is that the players leave it all out there, and that it is important for Munster players to do that. It mightn’t even guarantee a win, but it should guarantee a performance and Munster fans, because of how much they love that team and how much they understand rugby, can sleep alright on Sunday night, even in defeat.
As long as they empty the tank. What we can’t have is wishy washy decision-making, average box-kicking, falling off tackles. Not fronting up as a pack. Believe me, the supporters certainly didn’t go to bed last Friday night feeling that the boys left it all out there.
There are some legacy issues Munster are still paying the price for. The reality, in my view, is that some people who don’t know the club and the ethos put average players in positions of prominence and power. Lads who get called ‘leaders’. Let’s call a spade a spade. If that’s your leadership group, what message does that send to everyone else?
Maybe it’s a societal thing because around the place now, there’s an acceptance of spoofers in every walk of life. In rugby, they are called statistics manipulators, lads who play their rugby to hit a set amount of rucks and get their set number of tackles. And all the while offering little material edge to their team-mates.
Racing 92, in Champions Cup terms, are a superpower. Let’s remember that. In trying to make the case for an away victory, one has to recognise that Racing have a lot of proper good players. And Munster are missing some of theirs. People should understand the value of what a good ten brings to a team — hence Carbery and Bleyendaal are losses for Munster. On this surface, Joey would be electric. But not this Sunday. Other Munster leaders must stand up and be counted. And then we can all sleep soundly Sunday night.
Imagine going to the La Defense Arena with Gaillimh and Claw. Wouldn’t that be brilliant?
Ryan wasn’t the only shrewd piece of recruitment at my old club
In this column five years ago, I wrote about a young Racing 92 hooker, Camille Chat(pictured). This lad was a special one — a brilliant player and a freak of a competitor. He didn’t register on most radars because at international level, fellow hooker Guilhem Guarado was the French captain and an 80-capper in Dmitri Szarzewski was also in front of him for club and country.
He had one other issue — his darts weren’t great. For a hooker, that’s a serious Achilles heel. We were looking then at a brilliant rugby player but an average hooker, which is not a good combination when so much of the job is launching your set piece attack.
At this stage, enter Donnacha Ryan, the Nenagh guardian. What a signing he has been for Racing.
Even now the club has a lot of exciting Under-20 talent coming through and Donnacha’s knowledge is empowering those young lads. Camille Chat was one of his early successes in that regard. He took the young hooker under his wing, working on his throwing, lineout calls, and movements and feeding into him as much knowledge as he could. Which was a lot. A fun video was doing the rounds last week comparing Camille to Usain Bolt. The odd thing is that his pace isn’t even his greatest attribute.
He’s still only 24 and he is so abrasive.
While the Racing backline is juicy — it will probably be Dulin, Thomas, Vakatawa, Chavancy, Imhoff, Russell, and Iribaren — there’s a few wily old birds in the pack too. Former Chief, Dominic Bird has really hit his stripes in the last couple of games and is a serious operator.
In the back row, they will go with Bernard Le Roux, Wen Lauret, and either Boris Palu, a young lad called into the French squad this week or Baptiste Chouzenoux, who is excellent in the lineout. Whatever the configuration, there are strong options.
Ryan wasn’t the only shrewd recruitment at my old club. The former Toulouse flanker Yannick Nyanga finished his playing career at Racing 92 and he was then made sporting director.
He would have been a mentor to winger Teddy Thomas, a winger of mercurial abilities as his try against Clermont showed last weekend. His challenge was to bring consistency into his game and Nyanga has helped him in that regard, explaining he needed to be as good in defence as attack to be an all-round world class player.
But Virimi Vakatawa may top them all. He is an extraordinarily good player. With a little rocket up his ass, he could be the best in the world. Given his World Cup exploits in Japan, it’s ludicrous that he wouldn’t even have been on the plane only for the injury to La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Then again, that’s France. I was only starting out as a coach with Racing the year he came back for pre-season from Fiji with a pot belly on him. Yet after six weeks of fitness training, it was like someone took a bicycle pump and inflated him.
Fijian genetics are incredible. He’s the sort who looks at a weight and gets bigger.