DONAL LENIHAN: Why Mafi’s become indispensible for Munster

BOTH Tony McGahan and Michael Cheika can enjoy a brief period of positive reflection as the Heineken Cup takes a short hiatus until December. The events of last weekend in particular not only bode well for the two provinces but Irish rugby as a whole.

Today Declan Kidney announces his first Irish squad for the autumn internationals. I am sure the form of Leinster and Munster in particular will have created a very positive atmosphere at the national management’s selection meeting.

Martin Johnson, preparing for his first assignment as England’s commander-in-chief, will not have drawn much comfort from the manner in which Wasps, Sale and Gloucester were sent packing in such a convincing manner by Irish and Welsh opposition. If anything Ireland have more fresh young talent emerging than our English counterparts. More on this issue once the squad is announced.

After the under-whelming performance against Montauban, it was always likely that Munster would re-assess and arrive in Edgeley Park primed for battle. As a result, I never shared the pessimism that many expressed in the build up to the Sale clash. When their team was announced by Philippe Saint-Andre on Friday, there was even more cause for optimism.

My logic was simple. In the knowledge that seven of the Munster pack look likely to start in the forthcoming internationals, if Ireland were facing an English pack made up of the Sale eight (eligibility set aside) you would confidently predict an Irish win. Saint-Andre also helped the Munster cause by persisting with Richard Wigglesworth at out half in preference to Charlie Hodgson and in not pairing Matthew Tait in midfield with Luke McAlister.

Meanwhile, in the red corner, McGahan made all the right calls.

Time and again this Munster side, despite changing personnel, have risen to the challenge when the need is greatest. Their response to Sale’s second half fight back when drawing level underlines this quality once more. When the chips are down Munster have the expertise on board who know exactly what is required.

It seems ludicrous to talk about a player of the season in October with many a battle around the corner but it is impossible to ignore the qualities that Lifeimi Mafi brings to the table. He is a human dynamo, the complete package. His tackle on Sebastian Chabal on the half time whistle sent a shudder around the stadium. When Chabal saw that he had been halved by a relatively lightweight back, his heart sank even further. Paul O’Connell he could live with — but a whippet of a centre was too much! He never recovered.

Mafi has curbed his tendency to break the defensive line that blighted his early performances in the red shirt and, Ronan O’Gara apart, is now Munster’s key back. His influence is such that if I was McGahan I would consider sending him on holidays for Munster’s clash with New Zealand next month. If Graham Henry sees this fellow up close and personal, he may well entice him to return home with the carrot of an All Black jersey. His Sevens appearance for his native land deprives him of the opportunity of lining out for Ireland and the lure of international rugby could prove too much. He is such an integral part of Munster’s expanded game plan that he must be retained at all costs.

Clermont Auvergne’s victory away to Montauban last Sunday was bad news for Munster and keeps their qualification hopes very much alive. At times it is difficult to interpret just how committed they are to this tournament but the words of their coach Vern Cotter after that win was a declaration of sorts. “We play the first game against Munster at home, so we have to make sure we win that game and deny them even a bonus point.”

Three years ago Munster went to Sale and were well beaten. They drew on that experience last Sunday. Last year they went to Clermont and suffered a similar fate. We will see next month if those lessons were also stored in the memory bank.

If Munster have reason to be happy with their performance over the weekend, Leinster have even more cause for celebration. Along with Cardiff Blues, they’re the only team in the tournament with a maximum ten point return from their opening two games — and one of Cardiff’s victims was Calvisano.

The challenge for Cheika is to deal with the level of expectation that will now follow him around the province. They have struggled in this respect before. This squad is well balanced with the experienced core of Irish internationals now supplemented from abroad with proven international winners in Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde and a crop of good young home grown talent.

The game against Munster in the RDS may have come a month too soon for Cheika but with Isa Nacewa likely to be available for the back to back fixtures against Castres in December, Leinster are in a very strong position.

Saturday’s performance against two times winners Wasps showed what Leinster are capable of. Consistency, or rather the lack of it, is the one thing that has dogged them for years. Munster’s rise to glory was buttressed by sometimes cruel lessons that would have broken lesser sides. The key thing was they learned from all those experiences. Leinster must now follow suit if they are to finally make the ultimate breakthrough on the European stage. Phase one has been negotiated with ease but as David Wallace stressed over the weekend, you don’t win Heineken Cups in October.


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