What Munster achieved against Toulon was staggering, says Donal Lenihan. But whether it will prove enough to topple a Racing 92 side that seems to be getting better as the season progresses remains to be seen.
AFTER the thrills, the drama, and excitement delivered by the national team at the Stade de France and Twickenham in an historic Grand Slam campaign, it would have been understandable if our Ireland stars were left slightly flat and drained.
Not a chance. The Six Nations, with all its history and tradition, remains, by some distance, the best annual international tournament in world rugby, but the Champions Cup has a magic all of its own. Smaller, more intimate grounds, many occupied with teams more entrenched in their local community and surroundings, provide a different dynamic.
Peter O’Mahony’s comments, while collecting his man-of-the-match award after yet another epic Munster win over a European powerhouse, in Toulon, captured that feeling perfectly. He highlighted the difference between a side cobbled together from all over the world and one made up primarily of players born and raised in the area they represent.
Players who previously stood on the same terraces that the next generation of fanatic young Munster supporters did last weekend, supporters, no doubt, harbouring dreams of some day emulating last Saturday’s heroes. “A huge bulk of the squad have come up here since we were small and that makes it a bit more special, I think,” said the skipper.
What we witnessed over the weekend was four captivating European quarter-finals, which produced four worthy winners, all capable of going the distance. The fact that the prospect of an all-Ireland Champions Cup final remains on the cards, for a second season in a row, also highlights the strength of the professional game in this country.
Last season, Munster and Leinster fell at the penultimate hurdle against really powerful sides, in Saracens and Clermont Auvergne, to quash that dream for another year.
Both teams will have learned from that experience and this places them in a stronger position to take that final leap, despite the undisputed quality that Racing 92 and Scarlets bring to the table.
Beavering away in their respective training headquarters at the highly impressive Le Plessis Robinson training centre, in Paris, and at their traditional base at Llanelli, the Racing and Scarlets players will be equally happy with their lot and fancy their chances of making it all the way to the decider in Bilbao on May 12. There is a lot of work still to be done by all four teams to arrive at that point, however.
What a difference a win makes. Imagine, for one minute, the doom and gloom that would have accompanied the long trek from Dublin to George, via Dubai and Johannesburg, when the Munster squad assembled for their mini tour of South Africa last Monday morning.
Instead, that season-defining win over Toulon, and the manner with which it was achieved, means the players were absolutely buzzing with the prospect of that trip, a first for the majority of the squad to South Africa.
It provides an opportunity, out of the spotlight, to use the games against Southern Kings and the Cheetahs in preparation for yet another head-to-head with Racing 92, their fifth in two seasons.
Given that the squad had been disjointed for two months due to the demands of the Six Nations, the chance to spend so much time together, in a decent climate for training, will only serve to unite this group even further, if that’s possible, for the challenge of finishing the season with silverware.
What Munster achieved against Toulon was staggering, not just because of the quality of the opposition, or the lack of recent preparation time, due to international demands, not to mention the loss of key performers to injury, but based purely on the dominance that Toulon enjoyed in all the key facets of play throughout.
I have never been one of those analysts who dwells too long on the ever-increasing match statistics that become public knowledge after every game now, but anyone taking even a cursory glance at the figures produced after Saturday’s astonishing win would have to wonder how Munster won that game.
Across 12 key categories, the only advantages Munster gained were in three: tries scored (by 2 to 1), lineouts won (100% to 77%), and turnovers conceded (6 to 19).
When it came to territory, possession, metres made, defenders beaten, offloads, and tackles made, Munster were a clear second.
That said, the only numbers that matter when the final whistle blows are the ones illuminated on the scoreboard and which had Munster ahead by the narrowest possible margin. A one-point victory never felt so good.
What those post-match statistics fail to measure is the size of the heart, the willingness to go that extra yard, to keep pushing when your body is crying stop.
That’s what Munster have in abundance. It’s what no multimillionaire benefactor can buy with any degree of certainty.
That quality was encapsulated in the performances of Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold, who both put in monumental, 80-minute shifts in midfield. Down to the bare bones — with Chris Farrell, Jaco Taute, and Keith Earls all out injured — that pair were magnificent.
Between them, they were giving away just under six stone against Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu, not to mention a combined experience base of 148 test caps. When Nonu was withdrawn from action with 21 minutes left on the clock to make way for another All Black, in Malakai Fekitoa, he made a wry shake of his head, running towards the touchline as if to say, ‘who are those two guys’?
Whether it will prove enough to topple a Racing 92 side that seems to be getting better as the season progresses remains to be seen. What we do know is that any team that can afford to hold Dan Carter in reserve — what an impact he made when introduced off the bench with 22 minutes to go — must be pretty formidable. Then again, so were Toulon.
Of the four teams left standing, Leinster appear in the best shape to go the distance. They were clinical in their dismissal of the reigning champions, Saracens, and look as if they have the scope to get better over the remaining weeks of the season.
At a time when the injuries are mounting for everyone else, Leinster welcomed back the undervalued Rhys Ruddock last Sunday and may well be in a position to add Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan, Jordan Larmour, and possibly even Robbie Henshaw to their playing roster over the next few weeks.
A standout for Ireland in the Six Nations, Dan Leavy has carried his form into the Champions Cup...
A try he started a finished, excellent score from the Leinster’s number 7?? pic.twitter.com/CyndSn4sbu— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 1, 2018
The rapid progress made this season by Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter, and Larmour has added massively to their competitiveness, while the experience gained by Tadhg Furlong on the Lions tour has elevated him to a different level.
In addition to that, the astute signings of former Wallaby, Scott Fardy, who can operate with equal facility in the second or back row, and New Zealand Maori winger, James Lowe, have added grit and invention to a squad already overflowing with exciting homegrown talent. They will be hard to beat.
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