Locking down Keith Earls to a new contract that keeps him in Munster until after the 2019 World Cup was a piece of savvy business Lansdowne Road mightn’t have got due credit for, says Ronan O’Gara.
Earls is 29 and, unless his next IRFU contract offer is a shocker, he’ll end up a proud one-club man in Munster, but the suitors will keep knocking on the door. Last Monday morning, he’d have had a tasty proposal from Racing 92 if the swooning after last Sunday’s performance in Paris was anything to judge by.
A few of the Racing coaching staff and players were in contact after Sunday’s game, which was very decent of them, and the Earls factor cropped up early and often in each conversation. The coaching staff was extremely impressed by him: ‘A thing of beauty’, in approximate translation.
All he’s got to do is keep himself fit and healthy. In terms of his physiology, he doesn’t have that creaky bone frame and I don’t believe he will lose that step and six-cylinder acceleration any time soon. Father Time doesn’t nab us all at the same time. David Wallace proved that.
If Earlsie can keep out of the physio room, he can be the thirtysomething to light up Ireland’s efforts in Japan next autumn 12 months.
In spite of his exhilarating try and the indomitable efforts of Donnacha Ryan for Racing, there remained an overriding sense of what could have been from the Pool 4 clash in Paris. Either way, I don’t think we were looking at the winner of the competition at the U Arena on Sunday.
From the conversations I had afterwards, there didn’t seem to be a sense in the Racing camp that they had blown everything by not kicking to the corner in the final moments, thereby giving them the chance of controlling their own destiny in the pool this weekend.
That said, I am not sure there was too much computing of the permutations other than the sense among the Racing players that Munster would be picking up five points at home to Castres in their final game.
That should have made the mathematics simpler, but it’s Champions Cup week in France and the players are readying themselves for a rugby match. On their plate is Munster and the bottom line is to stay alive. I think whether they were first or second in the pool was less significant at that moment than being in the shake-up this weekend when they go to Leicester.
Perhaps you need to examine the respective European pedigrees here. Would Munster have gone for the try in the same situation? Probably, but let’s consider the road not travelled.
Racing is a point ahead, but go for the corner. Szarzewski throws in, Munster throw Peter O’Mahony up to contest, he’s taken out in the air, Munster penalty.
Zebo booms the penalty downfield, to the halfway line. Munster win the lineout, bang up Rory Scannell into Tales’ channel, Racing don’t release in the tackle, penalty to Munster. Now we’ve already seen what Conor Murray can do from distance and you mightn’t even need him now. Suddenly you are Racing and, in the coaches’ box, furious faces are burning up. You’re completely destroyed and you’re out of Europe.
The game itself was so nip-and-tuck, it would take incredible poise and precision to have taken a bonus point out of Munster’s grasp in the final minutes. Racing would have bitten your arm off to get the win. Their heads were scrambled I think but over-riding everything else would have been the desperation for survival.
Munster weren’t the epitome of composure either, were they? Ryan’s retrieval of a pivotal restart did not reflect well on Munster’s awareness of that situation and Keatley’s late clearance was panicky enough in itself to concede what could have been the try that scuppered Munster’s pool-topping ambitions.
If Racing could succeed in getting the playing group to buy into a more demanding forwards fitness regime, imagine how good that pack would be. There’s no surprise in the fact that Munster were blitzed in the opening phases of both halves.
It’s the exact same reason Leinster suffered a similar fate in Lyon against Clermont in last year’s Champions Cup semi-final, but once they run out of gas and it becomes a fitness thing, Munster had their number. Prop Ben Tameifuna weighs in at 150kgs. He brings awesome power to the table but not for long enough. That’s part of the culture of the Top 14.
Racing’s trick line-out play is the work of Laurent Travers, who specialises in that area, and has executed that move seamlessly and at pivotal moments in the past.
It was fantastically executed by Nyanga. It wouldn’t be fair to charge Munster with snoozing at that moment.
Remember, this is a side now vying for the top spot in the Top 14, with nine players in Jacques Brunel’s squad for the Six Nations opener against Ireland, including Racing’s young tighthead Cedate Gomes Sa, who is the new breed of prop these days. In a quarter-final, they’d still be a handful.
What’s fascinating is the fate of Montpellier and Saracens this weekend. Kudos to the stickability of the Ospreys in Round 5 against Saracens, a draw which may ultimately end the champions’ interest in the competition. Both Sarries and Montpellier are in an uncomfortable spot and, while the five points mightn’t be enough for either in the final round, much will depend on the attitude of their opponents. Leinster are already guaranteed a home quarter-final, so what squad and what attitude does Leo Cullen bring to France?
Montpellier are all but gone (with a -24 scoring difference) but Leinster can’t overlook the opportunity to eliminate one of the most dangerous sides in Europe.
It’s unlikely that 18 points gets it done for Vern Cotter - if Exeter win in Glasgow, they are out - but he has to go for it. In fact, they’ll go hard.
Such has been Leinster’s form they believe they have nothing to fear from any opposition in a home quarter-final. Munster could still be denied that advantage but every quarter-finalist will breathe easier with Saracens and Montpellier gone.
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