When we are angry, we’re capable of anything, writes Ronan O’Gara
It’s been a draining week, and it’s only getting started. You don’t have the sick stomach and the nauseous feeling of a Munster European quarter-final, because Racing 92 isn’t my hometown team.
But we are looking to make a step the club has never achieved before — getting to a European Cup semi-final. And faced by Toulon, a team that hasn’t lost a knockout game in Europe in over three years.
Last Saturday, Racing won 28-20 away to Bordeaux, but it was as far away from the Toulon win-or-bust as you could imagine. A fast-track, a beautiful soccer stadium surface, 35,000 ringing the pitch... Ian Madigan is going to enjoy his stint in Bordeaux.
Our Stade Yves-du-Manoir in Colombes is dull and dank by comparison. It’s a poor ground, not conducive to the type of atmosphere these occasions can generate. That’s okay too. There are superstars on both teams, big players who get motivated by 50,000 crowds and a fast surface. Expressing themselves will be more difficult, but the scoreline won’t have any pictures on it.
Players talk about attitude and intensity, and what they will be doing. These are words. We have to see what we bring on Sunday. There’s plenty of fellas here well able to talk; it’s the old Munster Tarzan-and-Jane syndrome — train like Tarzan, play like Jane — which I am very familiar with from the old days.
If it came to it, you’d prefer the fella who trains like Jane and plays like Tarzan, but there aren’t many of them in the world. I was very down myself after two defeats to Montpellier and Toulon in the Top 14, and as a coach, you are not meant to do that. I was rattled and scratching my head. Last weekend’s win in Bordeaux led to more head-scratching, underlining what I have always said about Racing — when we are angry, we’re capable of anything. Players aren’t machines though, you can’t switch them on and off. And finding the trip switch and getting 23 of them all synched is quite difficult, believe me.
It puts us in a good position in the Top 14, but Racing can’t afford to prioritise. We don’t know what silverware tastes like, we are desperate to win anything. The Top 14 has turned into a monster, a financial juggernaut bulked up by the scale of the following. There’s no interest in what’s happening in the Pro12 or the Premiership, and even the Champions Cup has to muscle its way into people’s consciousness. The Bouclier de Brennus (Top 14) has a life of its own, with a prestige and heritage going back over 100 years. If you are sitting around the club here, you’re hearing about so and so who won a Bouclier in the 70s. That’s how they refer to their All-Ireland medal holders around here. With reverence.
People will lazily paint Sunday’s quarter-final with Toulon as the rich v the rich. Toulouse (with a spend annually of €37m) are the big financial hitters, followed by Clermont-Auvergne, Toulon, then Stade Francais, and we are on a par with Montpellier. After that, the likes of Bordeaux are still spending €21m per year.
Casey Laulala broke his leg recently and is an obvious miss, and though we will also miss Henri Chavancy, Teddy Thomas and Antoine Classen, we are potent when focused.
When we returned from Bordeaux, I went through a full rerun of the Leinster-Munster game at the Aviva. (I watched Ulster and Connacht live on the Friday night).
A simple and compelling truism in sport is that if you don’t take your chances, you don’t win games.
Munster dominated early in both halves last Saturday, but couldn’t convert.
Johnny Holland was the one fella who battered over from close range, and you don’t expect your No. 10 to be doing that. Great try from him.
He has added something to Munster, and he’s a very interesting proposition going forward.
Munster will be livid about the spurned three-point opportunities late one. It won’t be said publicly, but those decisions will have been addressed this week internally. Munster had two opportunities — after declining the points on the right hand side with three minutes left to draw the game, it was a gimme in front of the posts to get the draw. Bad decisions made.
The chances of going for broke are enhanced when you are trying it in Thomond Park, and the referees are under more pressure. But when you are away from home, considering how the game had gone, it probably felt like ‘ok we should have won the game’, but after the shower, with two points on board, they’d be going ‘not a bad night’.
In terms of the Pro12 table, Munster aren’t in the top two, so they don’t have points to be gambling with in such situations. They’re in a scary place in terms of the top four and an uncomfortable one in terms of the top six and European rugby next season.
Failure isn’t an option. Hence the Connacht game next week in the Pro12 has taken on disproportionate importance for a side used to being in European knockout action at this time of the year.
One thing interesting about Connacht this week was a slight shift in attitude. Heretofore there’s been no mention of any title, now there’s mention of two titles, which seems a dramatic mindshift in my opinion, and that could be very dangerous.
Connacht’s attitude in Ravenhill last Friday was incredible, but it’s the trademark of the underdog. Don’t damn them with false praise for that. There comes a time, and it’s now, when you can no longer play that card. People are rightfully applauding their doggedness, but their downfall last week was discipline, and silly yellow cards.
It’ll be interesting to see where their mentality is after this campaign. They’ve achieved absolutely nothing yet, they need to keep on task. If you are looking at Claudio Ranieri, he has done the head-down thing very well at Leicester City. He’s still not talking about winning titles, and they’re seven points clear. Connacht are second in the Pro 12.
They might look at tomorrow’s Challenge Cup quarter-final as a freebie, but so too will Grenoble. They’re well out of the mire in the Top 14, and can release the pressure valve on what is a great, fast, pitch. With the way, Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman have them playing, a sort of wide-wide game, they’ll be a dangerous proposition.
Winning the Challenge Cup puts €300,000 into their budget for next season, and it won’t do the CVs of Prendy and Birch any harm either…
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