RONAN O'GARA: Munster one of five that can win Heineken Cup

Munster head coach Rob Penney speaks to reporters at the University of Limerick. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

In a city the size of Paris, you can hide in plain sight. The streets of Cork and Limerick don’t afford a hurting rugby player such crumbs of comfort.

Europe is already done for Racing Metro, leaving us all frustrated. Frustration is one thing, public accountability another.

Racing’s players can walk the boulevards with impunity here. They’re answerable to no-one outside the club, whereas when you play with a team like Munster, you get a mouthful on the streets, early and often. As it should be.

That is a problem in big metropolitan centres like London or Paris. There’s no such thing as a ‘people’s team’. The public don’t feel they have an ownership of their local rugby team. How does Racing Metro become more important, more fundamental to the people of Paris in a way the players are to the people of Munster? I’ll pay good money for that answer.

While I wouldn’t say last Sunday’s performance by Racing at Harlequins was encouraging, it was nowhere near as bad as the week before in Nantes. Plenty of teams have gone to the Stoop and been beaten, but that’s not to say we are anywhere near the level we should be with the quality at our disposal.

There’s quite a bit of chat around at present about the standard of the international rugby player. In my view there’s a helluva lot of average talent playing in the Heineken Cup this season. Has the standard of the competition been as high as previous years? Not in my view, and I don’t know why that it. But it is.

In that respect, Munster are manoeuvring their way into a very encouraging space. Last weekend’s series of results — the Kingsholm one being the icing on the cake — put Munster in a position to get a home quarter-final. They could now win the competition this year if the draw is kind to them. The Munster players that lacked a small bit of belief in the Clermont semi-final last April will have that now, so if they get a French team at home (in the quarters), they’ll win that game.

Though there are two rounds to play, rest assured the Heineken Cup winner will come from one of five clubs. From France, there will be Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse, that’s it. They are not one, but two notches above anyone else here.

Throw in with them Leinster and Munster, not Ulster, they’ve been very impressive to date, no doubt, but I’m not sure they can make the final step at European level. Leicester may also get to the semis, but in a one-off game, an Irish or a French team will beat them.

I took myself off for a jog during Racing’s captain’s run in London last Saturday. Aware that Perpignan had created a last-gasp try against Munster, I planned on running off the frustration. But when I started getting a whole load of ‘Yessss’es’, on my What’s App, I knew then something extraordinary had unfolded. The oddest thing was no-one else in the Racing camp was surprised, though some wondered was it a late drop goal.

It was a significant afternoon in the development of JJ Hanrahan. The try was a byproduct of his natural game. Players get pigeon-holed in some respects, just as I was later in my career as a kicking 10. I made plenty of breaks earlier when things were not analysed so much. Hanrahan is so much more that a kicker. He has a lovely step, is an attacking threat and, yes, we know he can kick.

If he is given the scope to put that sort of footballing cv together for five or six weeks in-a-row, next thing he’s knocking on the door as Jonny Sexton’s back-up for Ireland. But will he get that opportunity for Munster? That’s the key question, because it looks like Rob Penney is a big Ian Keatley fan.

The problem starts when JJ Hanrahan becomes a jack of all trades across the backline, and isn’t allowed become a master of the 10 position. You can’t allow that to happen. You’ll have so-called rugby experts talking about ‘getting him on the pitch’, and ‘have all your best players playing’, but Hanrahan and Keatley are two 10 and a decision has to be made on which is your standout talent to nurture in the position going forward. Obviously, there are occasions when a specialist has to help the team out, but if that’s over a six-to-12 month period, that becomes detrimental to his general development at an out-half.

They’re both rookies in many senses, even if Ian is a few years older. He will learn too from missing kicks. People have to allow for that. We all went through that. That’s what being a rookie is.

Penney’s big goal has to be victory against Gloucester in the fifth round next month. If Munster have serious ambitions to win the Heineken Cup, you have to win away in Gloucester. Bagging the home quarter has a debilitating effect on any team tasked with coming to Thomond Park. History, folklore, inevitability. They are all in the heads of visitors to Limerick, especially French sides. If they don’t get the first five minutes right, they’re beaten.

After escaping to victory in Perpignan, the Munster lads prepared for their Christmas party last weekend with military precision. Road trip. The Munster party was always a huge de-stresser because I always felt under huge pressure to perform in that block of fixtures before Christmas. It was intoxicating in every sense then to have a blowout with your team mates. It was a brothers’ night out.

Racing’s party was something more sedate, because the focus is the children. Santa came, we all marvelled at the buffet, the savouries. It was all well done, a bit like a plush wedding in Barbados.

Looking around the room, I set about picking my best 15. It’s been the club’s problem all season. Between the two Harlequins games in the Heineken Cup, there was more than 10 changes in terms of starting positions. If you were to ask me what’s the best team, I still don’t know. And yet, we still have everything to play for domestically. In the Top 14, only 10 points separates first and 10th.

The Irish provinces will use their Christmas local derbies to sort out a few remaining debates on starters and back ups. James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne are bringing the best out of each other in the Munster scrum, which was very impressive last Saturday (underlining BJ Botha’s big-game prowess once more). And Stephen Archer is knocking on the door too.

If they can jizz up the backline and sign a replacement hooker, Munster are in good shape. If Damien Varley gets injured 10 minutes into a Heineken Cup semi, they’ll be exposed without the one essential ingredient at that level — experience. Hence, the Andrew Hore signing would work a treat, if it comes about.

At season’s end another key Munster cog Casey Laulala will have to be replaced. He’ll bring a proper work ethic and set of standards where-ever he goes.

Now where could that be.....


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