That uncomfortable sensation Munster players are experiencing this week has little or nothing to do with a shake-up at management level, writes Ronan O’Gara
It’s the queasy prospect of missing out on Europe next season for the first time. That fight-or-flight feeling of how close they are to the precipice ahead of tonight’s Pro 12 meeting with Edinburgh in Musgrave Park.
And that’s a good thing. That they feel discommoded. And that tonight’s game is in Cork.
Any reference in the dressing room to Johan Erasmus or Anthony Foley’s future is an excuse. We’ve underlined here before the primacy of examining things from the players’ point of view. All that other stuff is for next season. More and more in professional sport, management change is everyday business. The Munster lads will read the papers, but as of now it’s of no consequence who they are listening to after this campaign. Some will be happy there’s a new voice because they’re not in the team at the moment. The starters will be thinking ‘what’s happening here’, but that’s no bad thing. Everything else is moot.
Players are unbelievably selfish, they are concerned with themselves. I know. I was one. But Munster’s problems can only be sorted from within, in one dressing-room. They’re wounded.
This is about survival for Munster rugby, which, for the brand in question, makes tonight a huge occasion.
And a huge night for Cork. I slipped home for a few days earlier this week after Racing’s Champions Cup semi-final win in Nottingham. Rugby people down here aren’t slow to remind you they’ve been put out and left out with the one-base decision in Limerick. There’s always been an edge to Cork-Limerick rugby rivalry. Sometimes I wonder was the greatest vindication of my career being accepted by the local supporters in Thomond Park.
Hence it’s great that Musgrave Park hosts such an important game. Punters are looking for unequivocal confirmation from the players what it means for Munster to be in the European Cup. The loyalty of the Cork support has never been an issue. All they want is evidence that it still means everything to the players. Then they’ll do what’s right for Munster, something I experienced at the lowest point of my career, returning from the disastrous 2007 World Cup in France. That night remains a personal highpoint.
The support is waiting. It’s frustrated but it’s there. Tonight could be massive, with the potential to be one of those great Munster nights - full house, everything at stake.
We have a few Springboks in the Racing camp. The feedback on Johan Erasmus is very positive. Good reputation, highly organised. What keeps coming back about him is his structures.
When he was coaching in the Super 15, he had a colour co-ordinated plan to call the shots from the coach’s booth. Red was this play, green was another, and so on. Erasmus is someone who likes a lot of control and he will put his stamp on Munster. That is important.
Structure is good. It makes you accountable. It’s too easy to make excuses when you have an open-ended game plan. Rugby has changed, all sport has. Unless you have 15 geniuses on the pitch - which isn’t possible - you can’t play it as you see it. Those days are over, even if anyone over 50 might struggle to accept that. Blame statistics. The GAA is the same.
Erasmus’ three year contract underlines that Munster’s director of rugby strategy is a long-term project. Employing that management model means the South African goes in as the de facto head coach. Erasmus will bring in his team, if Axel can fit into that, he will. If he can’t, it’ll be the South African way.
There are directors of rugby who don’t concern themselves with pitch work. Some are organisers, like David Humphreys at Gloucester, creating the team’s culture. (There’s that word again. We’re at saturation with that one I think).
Whether Axel will be happy to work in an assistant capacity I don’t know. If not, there’s an awkward situation brewing. From the outside, the key has to be whether the two of them have the capacity to work together, and that will take a bit of bedding-in time. If Axel isn’t happy with developments, then it’s a problem. But we don’t know that.
My problems are Clermont Auvergne. And ensuring Racing’s players come down from the emotional high of making the Champions Cup final last Sunday. What pleased in the 19-16 win over Leicester was how we controlled the game. When they scored late, it made the last 90 seconds hairy, but we played the game and not the occasion. That was impressive.
Just as the City Ground was no advantage to Leicester, Lyon will give us nothing extra for the final against Saracens. It might as well be in America for all it matters now.
We entertain Clermont this weekend in the Top 14 and we have to keep that going.
It’s all in the dressing room. Like Munster, let’s see what it’s made of.
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