The perseverance of some players is necessary to overcome damaging perceptions of them, writes Ronan O’Gara
It’s another failing I’ve had to work on as a coach — pigeon-holing someone because of the dressing room and coaches’ view of them as a player makes it easy to do so.
The first weekend of the Heineken Champions Cup was a celebration of perseverance over perception. Three third-choice scrum-halves came out poised and determined, with points to prove.
The misleading part is the (over)reaction when they’ve done well, as if they’ve gone from the scrapheap to greatness.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
What a jolt Xavier Chauveau has given Racing 92’s European hopes with his performance at the Scarlets last Saturday. The scrum-half has always been a far better player than trainer, and there’s been times when he was tempted to look over the garden wall elsewhere with Maxime Machenaud and Teddy Iribaren in front of him.
He’s been told many times, by myself too, that his pass needs working on. That’s not a great thing for a scrum-half to be hearing. But this fella is a player, and he’s right to be looking for his game minutes.
Last Saturday, just before half-time, Chauveau underlined what he can do, sending Scarlets’ Samson Lee one way before teeing up flanker Baptiste Chouzenoux for the game’s decisive try.
There’s a message here for players and coaches alike. Be open to a player’s capacity to change and improve. Don’t be a closed book.
First impressions are easily formed, and easier still to harden in an environment where such perceptions are reinforced. I wrote here last week about a first September off work in 23 years and, with that pause, you can see things beyond the walls of meeting and video sessions with players.
Yes, there are times when a player is just plain limited, and you’ve got to work with that. But I’m learning to reassess players, their personalities and their skillsets. Maybe it’s my vision that’s closed, and it’s my own stereotyping preventing me seeing how they (the player) see things happening. It’s good to challenge perception.
Of course, that goes both ways. For example, Duncan Williams was good for Munster in Exeter. But he wasn’t that good. It’s not unusual to see low expectation turning into hyperbole. We’re damn good at it in Ireland.
We need to remember that Duncan starts from the point of being a good scrum-half. Let’s be accurate in how we analyse performance.
He did some really good stuff at Sandy Park against a backdrop of Munster supporters thinking ‘Oh God, poor us, no Conor Murray, we’ve no chance’. That’s exaggerated when Alby Mathewson is unavailable, but Williams did his stuff.
Then the reaction flies to the other end of the spectrum and we get over-reaction. He has persevered. He isn’t going to play for Ireland, but sport will always be about how good your middle tier is. Every team has their marquee figures, but they can’t do anything without a bunch of seven-out-of-10 performers.
The perception before kick-off last Saturday in Exeter was that Munster would do well to return home with a bonus point. I was of that mindset until the first proper exchanges of the afternoon.
There isn’t a country in Europe that does the Heineken Cup like Ireland. Munster were going to raise their game anyway, it happens as a matter of course now in the Heineken Cup. Where my assessment fell short was over-estimating the Premiership again.
Exeter are unbeaten this season, but context is everything. What are they playing? Look at the state of Bath at home to Toulouse, or Leicester away to Ulster. Fair play to Newcastle, but Toulon have never been at a lower ebb. Saracens are a proper team, consistently excellent, with an exceptional set-up in every sense of the word.
Exeter lost in Glasgow last season and twice to Leinster. No shame in that, but in the Premiership they aren’t used to facing the likes of Munster, who have real intent in their eyes. The intent of their carrying, their tackling was a step-up from what I’ve seen in the Leinster PRO14 game and I’m really not sure English Premiership sides are consistently at that pitch.
Munster’s execution was sloppy at times. I counted eight separate releases of pressure on Exeter through Munster inefficiency. You take 25% of those opportunities and you depart with four points. As things stand, that is the primary difference between Leinster and Munster at the minute — Leinster are ruthless, Munster have to get to that stage yet.
What will expedite that is the man wearing the number 10 jersey now. The greatest gift Joey Carbery has given the Munster players and support already is belief and presence. You look up at the team with him in it and there’s a real chance Munster will win whatever the opposition.
It’s been a while since that was the case. There’s that look of ‘we’re alright here, lads’. In Joey we trust. You don’t feel there’s an error around the corner any time soon, which is a marvellous comfort blanket to have, not just as a colleague, but around the ground, because that is where the unease is conceived. It’s like the Conor Murray assurance thing. You’re thinking, ‘oh this could be good’.
It’s a delightful prospect to have Murray, Carbery, Chris Farrell and Keith Earls in that backline. Munster fans need to understand how important Farrell can and will be when he gets back right from injury next year. It’s key for his self-belief and enjoyment in the jersey that he is stimulated and involved and that he is in the circle. He needs that.
The best comparison I can offer to emphasise the value of Carbery is the performance of George Ford in the 10 slot for Leicester last weekend.
If I didn’t see ‘Ford’ on the back of his jersey, I’d have wondered who was actually running the show for the Tigers. Biggest game of the campaign so far, a new coach, against an Ulster team short of self-belief and on the ropes, and it absolutely didn’t happen.
You were looking for George to drive his team around the pitch, grab the game by the throat. It wasn’t even close. What would Jonny Wilkinson make of it?
The third persevering scrum-half is Leinster’s Nick McCarthy. He only got 20-odd minutes at the RDS last Friday night, but he was on my radar for the reason I was told in the lead up he could be coming to Munster sooner rather than later (with a two-year deal confirmed yesterday).
His prospects in blue were not helped by Jamison Gibson-Park’s Irish qualification next year and the IRFU evidently wanted him getting more game time elsewhere. He hasn’t had many Leinster starts but it hasn’t dimmed his attitude and his sharpness, and, at 23, he’s got time.
How Leinster punished Wasps was more interesting than their demolition of the Premiership side on the scoreboard.
For all their marquee names, there is still a fundamentally strong work ethic at the core of what Leo Cullen’s side do. Leinster carried hard and took the legs out of them. Toner carried hard, Ruddock the same, James Ryan, Furlong, Cian Healy, Cronin, they punish teams and take their legs away.
What does that mean? It’s playing with such a consistent intensity and ability to keep the ball that after a while the opposition goes all Roberto Duran and says ‘no mas’. They just can’t go there any longer.
If Joe Schmidt was of a mind to, he could swap that Leinster squad into one of the ‘other’ November internationals. And James Lowe will be available to Ireland too in 2020!
That’s 10 wins on the bounce in the crucible of European Cup rugby, and seven straight wins against Premiership opposition. It’s going on three years since they lost a European game at either the RDS or the Aviva.
That issue of a domestic fortress is an interesting subplot to tomorrow’s game at Thomond Park. There’s danger for Munster in the fact that it’s being interpreted in some quarters as a gimme. It might be interesting to hear David Humphreys take on that. The sense from Sandy Park (off the television, admittedly) is that Munster supporters have turned a corner in terms of expectation. Carbery and Beirne in, a strengthened squad, there’s a buzz about Munster that hasn’t been there in a while.
Big European weeks in Limerick usually culminate in intensity on a Saturday, a foot on the throat of the opposition. Whether the Munster support has an earlier breakfast or a later lunch, that sense of over-our-dead-bodies has to be preserved and reinforced at every opportunity in Europe.
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