The problem with being a market leader for so long is that expectation levels are always set at ceiling height. Munster have been a good news story for European rugby ever since that shattering defeat to Northampton in the 2000 Heineken Cup final.
There was something about the reaction of the Munster supporters in defeat that day that captured the imagination. Despite their obvious disappointment, they stayed and clapped the Saints on their lap of honour before offering a heartwarming rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ for their own vanquished heroes. That resonated with rugby fans everywhere. Overnight, Munster became the second team of rugby fans across Europe.
I still recall the reaction of Welsh holidaymakers, streaming through the arrivals gate at Cardiff Airport on the evening Munster finally captured the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium. “How did ye get on today?” they enquired. We won. “Ah, bloody marvellous.” Indeed it was.
That it will take a while before witnessing days like that again was reinforced by the merciless hammering inflicted by Racing 92 on a hapless Scarlets outfit in Paris last Saturday. Munster won’t be alone in experiencing recurring nightmares about their trip to the French capital this season.
Bear in mind that Scarlets sit proudly on top the Guinness Pro12 and are a decent side. They were 38-0 down at half time against Racing and, to their credit, staged a bit of a comeback with two early second half tries.
All that served to do was awaken the beast once again and a final score of 64-14 puts Munster’s defeat at the Stade Jean Bouin into perspective.
Yes, Scarlets had injuries going into this game but this was well short of Racing’s strongest team. They even had the luxury of playing the world’s best out-half, Dan Carter, at centre. No surprise that he excelled there too. It is becoming harder and harder to win silverware in Europe and for the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for is to remain competitive.
The fact that Munster rediscovered their hard edge, having surrendered meekly in the previous week, is all the public expect and want to see. Everybody understands that the ground rules have changed in Europe but it was the ability to rally and a refusal to lie down in the role of underdog that, for years, endeared Munster to everybody up to the point of that first European success in 2006.
The spark that needed to be rekindled in Munster and indeed Leinster last weekend and why their respective victories over Stade and Bath hit the right spot with both sets of supporters. The numbers in Thomond Park may well have fallen but those who turned up last Saturday gave a clear message to the players and the entire Munster organisation. Deliver an honest performance and we will stick with you. Stay true to who you are.
That applies even more when youth is given its fling and, if there is an upside to being out of Europe early, it’s that it affords the coaching teams the chance to expose younger players to the demands of the next level without major repercussions. Munster discovered the true value of Conor Murray in such circumstances, when failing to make the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup back in 2011.
Rerouted to the Challenge Cup, Murray was promoted for the away game against Brive and played well. Four months later he won his first cap against France in Bordeaux and made the World Cup in New Zealand. Within two years was a successful British and Irish Lion. Would he have been afforded that chance, with Tomás O’Leary the resident Munster and Irish scrum-half at the time, without Munster’s demise in the Heineken Cup? I doubt it.
If Leinster get anything like the same return from the sextet of starting Champions Cup debutants against Bath, then their future looks extremely bright. The qualities Garry Ringrose brings to the table have been well flagged in this column for some time now. Without wishing to put too much pressure on him, I think he was ahead of Brian O’Driscoll in terms of his all-round game when both were 19-year-olds. Once O’Driscoll made the breakthrough to the top level, his rate of development was spectacular. Ringrose has the ability to do likewise.
Then again, in contrast to Munster, Leinster never had any major issue in producing quality backs. Munster more than made up for that as the traditional breeding ground for top notch international forwards. On the evidence of that impressive win over Bath, Leinster are nurturing a couple of gems of their own up front.
Of the youthful front row trio of Peter Dooley, James Tracy, and Tadhg Furlong that more than held their own against a strong Bath front five, most impressive was the man in the middle. I watched Tracy play at loose head prop for UCD a few seasons ago at AIL level and he was struggling to cope. The decision to switch to hooker is now paying dividends even mastering the most challenging aspect that transition usually entails by becoming a very consistent thrower.
In the second row, Ross Molony built on the positive impression made off the bench in early season games and looks an exciting talent. It is even more encouraging to hear that he also took responsibility for calling the Leinster lineout. That augurs well. Perhaps the most exciting of the newcomers up front is the emergence of a genuine open side in Josh Van Der Flier. This affords Leinster all kinds of flexibility in shaping their back row combinations against different opponents.
Leo Cullen deserves a lot of credit for the way he has managed his resources at a very pressurised period due to the demands of the World Cup. Munster have nothing like that throughput of young talent at their disposal, but all you need is a few coming through every two or three years.
Jack O’Donoghue certainly ticks that box but is better placed at No 8. That said, the exposure he has had as an open side will stand to him and give him a better understanding of how to support and play off the No 7 when he reverts to his more familiar role. Captain of a number of underage international sides, he also has much to offer on the leadership front. Rory Scannell is another fresh face to make his mark and will only get better with more exposure.
While Dave Foley hardly falls into the category of emerging player, nonetheless, he represents the next generation and having played so well over the last two seasons, had taken a backwards step in the first half of the season. He must accept a major portion of responsibility for the lineout foul-up that led to that crucial try by Michael Fitzgerald for Leicester at a crucial time at Thomond Park.
After another disappointing display at the Stade Jean Bouin he showed character last Saturday — fuelled, no doubt, by hurt — and rediscovered the athleticism, physicality, and raw edge that saw him win two Irish caps last season. He must now seek to maintain that standard.
He, along with Mike Sherry, have vital roles to play in setting the standards up front for the remainder of Munster’s season. While much tweaking is required on a range of issues off the field, the players know that committed performances and results cover a multitude.
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