RONAN O'GARA: Always beware of fella with medals in the pocket

I’VE been thrown around like a child’s doll a few times over the years, been spun arse over kettle like a washing machine cycle by back rows who ought to know better.

But I’ve been awake and had boots on at the time. On this occasion, I was comatose in my pyjamas when the walls came tumbling down.

Well not quite that. But if I don’t feel the shake, rattle and roll sensation of an earthquake for the rest of my days, it won’t be a day too soon. Last Saturday night in Christchurch, we had a 4.1 magnitude quake that left us hanging onto the bed.

Quite literally, we didn’t know what was going on. You are sound asleep. Am I dreaming this or no? The bed moved at least a foot off the wall. The kids slept through it, but Jessica had been watching YouTube footage earlier in the night about the 2011 earthquake here, so she was fairly wound up anyway.

Christchurch, as a community, may never recover psychologically from the trauma of what happened here seven years ago, but the tragedy has bred a very matter-of-fact attitude to earthquakes — they happen. 

It doesn’t make it any easier to experience what occurred last weekend — but it’s not a shock now to the locals. And they accept that there may be relatively small tremors from time to time.

It puts into perspective the sporting hyperbole we feed off but it didn’t change anything on Monday. It was training as usual for the Crusaders.

Always beware of fella with medals in the pocket

But that stage, the knockout stages of the Champions Cup had ironed itself out a hemisphere away, though not without its own, more benign atmospheric interruptions.

Munster found themselves in the unusual position of benefitting from a delay of three hours, during which time Castres’ interest in the tournament had been ended elsewhere by Racing 92.

Once Munster put the foot down on Sunday in Thomond Park, they may have had cause for pause on the basis of essentially choosing their French quarter-final opposition. 

It’s not bending the rules, but it was an interesting proposition that could have been played out more in the head of Munster management than it would have been on the pitch. Players are in the moment, concentrating on the job at hand. 

It would have made perfect sense to look after the best possible draw you can get. But as things transpired, the bonus point win presented Munster with a tougher proposition in the last eight.

Many would see the Toulon game as a 50-50, but in doing that, they might be failing to recognise the achievements and the European pedigree of Toulon. It’s not the same Toulon that won three Heineken Cups in a row, far from it. 

But over 80 minutes at Thomond Park at the end of March, Munster are more likely to be turned over by Toulon than they are by La Rochelle.

La Rochelle are the coming team in the Top 14, but that’s not having medals in the bank. If they cannot win in Ulster in the pool phase, what chance have they of going to Thomond Park in knockout rugby and winning? 

It’s the club’s first time qualifying for the quarter final so in their heads, they are in bonus territory already. It’s not the winning mentality you need going to Thomond Park — or Parc Y Scarlets for that matter.

I watched the Scarlets-Toulon game and the visitors put up 27 points to remind everyone they haven’t gone away. 

Chris Ashton, with 13 tries already, is on course to break the Top 14 record for a season. The ultimate poacher is two ahead of Nemani Nadolo at Montpellier and the next best is on five tries (Alex Bales at La Rochelle). If people’s attitudes create certain perception round Ashton, he hasn’t changed.

Some people don’t fancy his attitude in the same way they don’t like Luis Suarez for certain elements of his character. Ashton likes a swan dive. It’s what makes him tick, what excites him, and if he wants to do that every week, it means he’s scoring tries every game. 

That’s why he is on the pitch, to score tries. I have no issue with him. The try he scored at the Scarlets is nothing he hasn’t been doing all season in France. If he maintains his current strike rate, he’ll set a record that won’t be equalled in a long time.

There’s been a lot of big name players have played in the Top 14, but few of them have delivered with the consistency of Chris Ashton. Hence, anyone who sees Munster-Toulon as a home gimme doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Clermont will have a full house and a raucous support at home to Racing 92 in the other quarter on that side of the draw, but this won’t be Top 14 and Racing will bring the full deck with them. Last Sunday, Dan Carter made his return from injury at Welford Road.

In 23 minutes against Leicester he hit rucks, made tackles and made the decisive turnover at the death. That’s what young fellas need to know. In a completely forward-dominated game, you don’t have to force something, or pull a rabbit out of the hat as a ten.

Sometimes it’s just about being a positive for the team, which he was. If he stays healthy through the spring, and Patrick Lambie is there with him, Racing won’t want for control in Clermont.

The form of Maxime Machenaud has context too from an Irish point of view with February 3 looming. Up to a month and a half ago, he was behind Teddy Iribaren in the pecking order at Racing, but he has found momentum and confidence and is kicking beautifully. 

Even when Dan Carter came on the last day at Leicester, Max retained the kicking duties, and nailed a pressure kick.

LEINSTER’S incredible pool campaign yielded the “reward” of a quarter final at home to champions Saracens. 

It’s an incredible piece of bad luck. The champions are probably the only team in the competition capable of going to Dublin and winning. 

It’s a quarter-final, but it might be the final. Sarries have little or no experience of going to the RDS, with its different slopes on the pitch, the wind goes this way and that. 

The English lads in that set up will be well used to the Aviva. I wonder was the decision to opt for the national stadium cut and dried from the moment the draw was made?

In wishing best wishes in his retirement to Tommy Bowe — the Brian O’Driscoll of the North! — we were reminded again Sunday of the value of a confident finisher like Keith Earls. 

The Munster wing is a lock for one of the wing berths against France, but is Jacob Stockdale nailed on for the other? As much as he has been ripping it up, Joe Schmidt is huge on defensive detail, alignment etc and I know Joe likes Andrew Conway, who is brave, smart and excellent for box kicking. 

Fergus McFadden is now in big form too and Joe spoke on Wednesday about the value of current form.

Earls is in that place now. Once upon a time, he missed a tackle on Manu Tuilagi in a World Cup warm up game in Dublin against England. I am convinced a lot of his subsequent issues in terms of self-belief can be traced back to that day in August 2011.

And yet that happens every second game when Tuilagi is barrelling towards a defender.

But an older, more settled Keith Earls now thrives on responsibility and on being a leader.

He could prove a totemic figure for club and country over the next five months.


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