Being a May team has its own special inference, writes Ronan O’Gara.
All good teams cite consistency as a key element of their success, but consistency doesn’t cut it alone in May. May is about delivery and dealing with pressure. Clermont Auvergne has an unfortunate record when it comes to the business end of the season.
But an instructive one nonetheless. May hasn’t been a good month for them and it wasn’t going to improve very much facing Saracens in the Champions Cup final.
There are words that linger around narratives like last Saturday in Edinburgh. Valiant is as good as any to stick on Clermont. For Saracens, relentless seems appropriate.
The last time they lost a knockout game in Europe? April 18th, 2015 when they lost a Champions Cup semi, ironically, to Clermont. 18 games unbeaten since, a tournament record.
I spoke a bit to Peter Stringer about his time there, and a few things stuck out about the Saracens way. Most of all though, they seem to get the important details right a lot of the time. Performance director Philip Morrow and Mark McCall seem to be getting a right old tune out of the players.
A lot of this is about creating a culture (not the first time you’ve read that in this column) and Saracens are prepared to spend money on the players outside the environment of game and training to nurture that authentic family feeling in the group.
Strings said the way the club looks after those with higher squad numbers is an important element of their success. I’ve written this here before: it’s easy and obvious to look after the match-day squad group, but in build-up and preparation, numbers 25-35 are actually the people that matter.
They may not have been involved against Clermont, but they are the ones who play the Clermont way on the Tuesday before the final that gives the game plan for the big day its structure and shape. The bigger picture is fairly obvious: treat the players properly and they’ll give it back to the club in spades on the pitch.
Saracens has done everything from skiing trips to the Munich Beer festival in recent seasons. Once they flew off to New York for an ice hockey game. If you think this is all fringe and fluffy stuff, their recruitment strategy is based on hard-nosed practicalities – and it’s usually bang on.
Next season they have 145kg Nick Skelton coming in from the Waratahs, Liam Williams too. If the Champions Cup final had been reffed differently last Saturday, there could have been a 20-30 point difference between the sides. It’s not being uncharitable to Clermont to say that. I can only see Saracens moving further ahead of the pack over the next couple of seasons.
Maro Itoje will only be 25 in 2020. Owen Farrell is still 25, Jamie George won’t be 27 until October. I watched the Sarries hooker in the build-up on Saturday. I was fascinated how relaxed he seemed in television interviews.
The Saracens players appear, and perception is the reality in this instance, to have the psychological side of the game really covered off – when they work, they work, but they are not burning off energy in the build-up to the game.
The Farrell dilemma for the British and Irish Lions is fascinating. The first test against New Zealand isn’t until June 24 in Auckland and a lot can happen before then, but Warren Gatland must decide on his preferred ten between Farrell and Johnny Sexton, rather than accommodating both with Farrell in the centre.
It’s one or the other at out-half, and a genuine 12 like Robbie Henshaw in the centre. If Johnny gets the start in the first test, Farrell will be at 12. And that’s not a good idea, because you get 70% of what a player like Farrell can bring to a test match.
The benefits of two good players like Johnny and Owen after 50 minutes I can see, but kicking off – given the physicality the All Blacks will bring – with the Saracen in midfield is a compromise – and they are usually the worst kind of ‘solution’.
The benchmark for Munster and Leinster will be Saracens, up to and including 2019. Sarries age profile demands that. But the logical cycle of these things would suggest that the champions are nearer their absolute peak than either Irish province and therefore will descend from the summit sooner.
Rassie Erasmus knows Munster has closed the gap this season. You can be successful as a team without lifting a trophy. They may need another semi-final in Europe, and then a final appearance before they are truly ready to claim a third European Cup. But the portents are positive if they keep the present management structures in place.
Erasmus looks like he is staying put. Let’s not hope for Munster’s sake that a disastrous test series for the Springboks against France next month changes that.
Lifting the PRO12 trophy next weekend would be the culmination of a good campaign for either Munster or Leinster. It will be surprising though not shocking if they’re not facing off at the Aviva Stadium.
Llanelli will push Leinster hard tonight. They will be buoyed by the absence of Cronin, Kearney and Heaslip and the fact that Sean O’Brien does not start. I think Leinster will need him to get over the line. The Ospreys won’t be afraid either of their task at Thomond, but Munster will be tooled-up after their Saracens experience and Ospreys will not be able to counter their game plan.
Whatever the weather and conditions, they will hardly be as wild as here in the gale force winds of Saint-Cyprien in Perpignan, where Racing 92 are camped ahead of our Top 14 quarter-final against Montpellier tomorrow.
If we beat the odds and win, we face... yes, Clermont in the semi-final. The Top 14 final is the Sunday Ireland fly out to the United States for the three-game tour. It would mean I’d have to travel out after the squad, which would be a bummer because I want to soak up every ounce of a Joe Schmidt tour as I can. But it’s a miss I’d happily accept in this instance. I want to squeeze every last drop I can out of May. The month for big moments.
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