EVER return somewhere, full of nostalgic memories, believing everything would be just like before, only to be disappointed? Going back to Thomond Park last Sunday was nothing like that at all.
The contrast between the low of Nantes last Saturday night for Racing Metro and the same-as-ever hungry Munster performance in the Heineken Cup against Perpignan less than 24 hours later was marked to say the least. Even allowing for the graveyard shift on a Sunday lunchtime, it felt like a proper Munster occasion. 23,000 people setting the tone, and a few special friends in the tunnel and dressing room afterwards. Ye, the grass is still green on the other side alright.
Having bigged him up in the column last week, it was gratifying that Keith Earls turned my words into deeds with a man of the match display against Perpignan.
If there was a dampener it was the knee injury sustained by Conor Murray. The leadership he now brings to the Munster gameplan is expanding by the week, and there’s no point in pretending he won’t be a big miss in the Stade Aime Giral tomorrow.
That he is locked into Munster for two more years offers a degree of compensation. Because he could be a Racing Metro player by now, preparing to suit up with Johnny Sexton. We were eyeing Murray, but the Mike Phillips talks accelerated to a rapid conclusion and, in a roundabout way, assisted the IRFU in getting Murray’s extension across the line.
One Munster player who does seem likely to move to the Top 14 next season is my close friend Casey Laulala. I spoke about his influence here previously, so it won’t come as a surprise when I say Racing are very much in the frame to secure him at the end of the season. Unlike some folk, I wouldn’t be taking it as a certainty that he will go to Grenoble, as reported. I have the advantage of knowing him very, very well. Familiarity is important to a player moving to a new environment.
Proud as I am of being a Munster man, this is business. Casey is 31, from New Zealand, and it’s not like he was planning to remain in Ireland indefinitely. An altogether separate problem for the Irish provinces is losing indigenous talent. For the sake of Munster rugby, I’d hate to see the day when Kilcoyne, Sherry, Archer, Nagle, Foley, O’Mahony, Butler, O’Donnell, Murray, Hanrahan, Dineen, Ronan O’Mahony or even Keith Earls or Simon Zebo would be lured away from the efforts to rebuild the province.
Comparing Peter O’Mahony, for instance, to a Casey Laulala, is not even in the same ballpark. It’s not even the same game. It’s the likes of those players I’ve name-checked that the IRFU and the provinces must hold onto — fragmenting a home-grown team trying to win a Heineken Cup together sends out the wrong message. These guys have to stay around for the good of the Irish game.
It doesn’t always have to come down to contracts and offers on the table. There is so much more than money involved in a contract agreement. Happiness is crucial. If you earn an extra hundred thousand in France, then you are a big player — but that same player has huge earning potential off the field in Ireland too.
I never came close to leaving Munster. Never. I’d be a big believer in loyalty and as well as that, Munster matched my ambition at the time. It drove me mad on occasions, because I felt standards weren’t where they needed to be, but would I walk out on them? Not a chance.
Everyone does a bit of fishing around at contract time, because that boosts the ego and gives you negotiating wiggle room. But going abroad is a big move as a player — signing a contract is one thing, jumping on a plane and actually doing it is something else.
While I’m not comfortable with it, I know people at home will be saying about O’Gara getting involved in trying to lure Munster players out of the province. Gamekeeper turned poacher.
That’s just professional rugby. My attitude and approach to someone like Casey would be completely different to one of the younger lads. I would find it very difficult to approach any of the prospects I’ve mentioned.
You’d understand why if you were around the Thomond Park tunnel after Munster’s win last Sunday. I had texted Paulie and Donncha about saying hello after the game, but they grabbed me and brought me with them into the dressing room.
I even ventured towards my No 10 spot, but I had to stop myself!. They were all sitting around, I was shaking everyone’s hand like a nervous school kid. Then Axel Foley asked for a word with the players and I instinctively headed towards the dressing-room door, but he said ‘Rog, you stay, you’ve heard this plenty of times before’. I thought that was pure quality.
There I was, after watching a proper performance from my old team at home in contrast to the nightmare that was Racing’s defeat to Quins the previous night.
My first time back in Thomond Park, 23,000 there, welcomed by my former team-mates with open arms, getting texts afterwards about how much it meant to the players for me to come into the dressing room. I was completely overwhelmed heading back to the airport. Back in Paris Sunday night, I had to turn around and debrief the players on Monday morning about the performance against Harlequins.
Obviously when you’re with a different club now, the Munster lads would have been within their rights to feel ‘not now Rog, you’ve made your bed with a different club, a possible Heineken Cup opponent’. But the welcome into the dressing room made a good day wonderful. The whole day wrecked my head totally, though. I had to remind myself getting back on that flight to Paris that I am doing this to make myself a better coach, a better person in the long run.
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