ON WEDNESDAY, I shuffled my way through a long run. Thinking time. I started into the habit earlier this year and the upsides have grown on me. I could tell you I spent the hour contemplating the meaning of life, but who am I fooling?
This was pure rugby country.
On the night La Rochelle beat Sale, I began scribbling out the next three weeks. GPS. Game minutes. Horses for courses. At home in Ireland, there’s plenty of chatter about the Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster but I prefer to eat my elephants one nibble at a time. Tomorrow we are at home to top-six chasing Lyon. Next week we travel to Brive. That’s the rub with the Top 14. It’s omnipresent.
How you use your players, how and when you want them to peak is the most important thing you can do as a coach. But results determine perception. You also have to take care of the business that’s in front of you – that’s the difference between the Top 14 and the PRO14. There’s often nothing going on for Irish, Scottish and Welsh players but all the while, the Premiership and the Top 14 are churning away.
Naturally, we are all excited to be in our first Champions Cup semi-final. Leinster are a fine side, but we came out of the hat first and when it comes to Europe, there’s a sense that it’s always better not to be playing a team from your own league. Certainly the La Rochelle lads seem to particularly enjoy that challenge. Leinster are a proper team – and I use that word deliberately - the most settled in Europe, and there is massive trust there, a point especially evident at Sandy Park. When Johnny Sexton goes off, Ross Byrne doesn’t miss a beat in what was a challenging moment. That’s impressive.
I haven’t faced them as a coach but as with any opponent I believe that we have the talent to win. It’s whether we can execute our plan for 80 minutes. Leinster will set their own plan out and they have history on their side, and all those stars on the jersey, but we are growing this club and in a few years we hope to be a big deal as well. Let me put it this way: I couldn’t be happier with the players I am going into battle with.
The European semi-final is precisely the sort of occasion you would want the Stade Deflandre thumping to the beat of 16,000 fanatical supporters. The La Rochelle faithful love their rugby, they are so Munster in that respect. But we are used to hollow, empty atmospheres in grounds at this stage. It’s a game and it’s there to be won. The fact that it is Leinster? Am I meant to get excited at that? We all have a job to do as coaches and players. And the first jobs are Lyon tomorrow and then Brive the following week.
We came away from the last two weeks against Gloucester and Sale excited at the good stuff but cognisant of the scope for getting better. If you are searching for the perfect game you will be searching forever. If we could play the second halves twice, we’d be a brilliant team. Sale defended differently to Gloucester – Alex Sanderson’s Masters degree is in defending, so they came hard off the line and it took us 30 minutes to figure our way through the problem. The second half last Saturday was good. Stuff rehearsed and prepped during the week, we executed under pressure. It’s the reason I enjoy coaching. The Rhule’s try was nice but the Doumayrou one was better. You dream of fine-tuning that sort of work during the week but the reality versus the perception of what a week at a professional club looks like would startle people. There is so little time, especially when you miss Monday with COVID testing. Low speed reps on a Tuesday, proper hit out Thursday, fine-tune on Friday. That’s the window.
Confidence and momentum are key to every player, but moreso, I feel, for French ones. We have both at the minute, but the goal must be to get everyone executing when the tide is out. That’s a performing under pressure conversation, and from now to the end of the season, that becomes a primary consideration with so many big games ahead. For me, translating thought and nuance from English to French, that’s a challenge, and I know at times I am scratching the surface in terms of language and interpretation. That won’t be an excuse. What is really good is that the fellas here want to play rugby and express themselves. That’s a great jumping off point: We played very differently from the Gloucester game away to the Sale game at home and we identified that we had to kick a little bit more against Sale, but the players got outcomes from both games.
This is also the period of the season when you want everyone on board. When you need the maximum number offering the maximum amount of effort and options. As a coach, does one ever reach a Utopian scenario when every player is happy? Of course not. The guys who start are happiest, the one on the bench are with you, and some of those out of the matchday group feel aggrieved. But so much of that nowadays depends how you respect your squad in a consistent way. That’s very important in management - if you say something and consistently do the opposite, then you are in trouble.
Am I still vulnerable to the occasional expression of frustration and anger? I still have a bad moment or two when I reckon lads are losing the run of themselves, but otherwise, pretty level.
Age and experience mellows us all though. When Simon Zebo and I played together, I wasn’t too keen on his happy-go-lucky approach to life, but I see it in an altogether different light now, so who was wrong?
Zeebs is 31 and coming back to Munster in good shape, mentally and physically. They need each other but his second coming brings a brighter rugby brain full of rich experiences from different coaching philosophies.
There is always a better way of doing things, and there’s no downside to discussing and probing new ways. Munster, I am sure, will listen to Zebo’s thoughts but this one-year deal is on him too - he’s an outer back, the guy who has to be creating the plays. Munster need that speed in the outer channels, and his counter-attacking range, the X factor, the energy, the abundance of positivity are all upside. We have a really good leftie here in Brice Dulin and that extra element in the back three is invaluable.
I like the lad, so I am biased. Of course, he’s Cork but I played with him and I know what he stands for. He isn’t that serious about life, and I like that now though it irked the grumpy me a decade ago. Munster won’t be his only target.
Hugo Keenan is the incumbent in the Ireland 15 jersey and Zebo will believe that a consistent show of form can usurp the Leinster man.
But to get the best out of him, you don’t give him rules. You need the environment right, a positive environment, not a stressful, negative situation. If you want him to shine, then allow for high-risk elements within a game plan. The game plan doesn’t have to change, but folk must trust the instincts. If it’s a skills error, leave it off.
I also would like to salute Tommy O’Donnell, who has announced his retirement. The type of player you cherish as a coach. An athlete who became a very good rugby player as opposed to a natural rugby player who became a better one. He worked at it. Quietly.
A proper Munster rugby person, who put his head down, worked hard and gave all he had. That commands my respect every time