JESS dropped me to work on Monday. The morning after the day before. I’d built Sunday up to be the defining moment in my time at Racing 92. Had we lost in Paris to Toulon, I started imagining how Monday morning would feel.
Let’s go straight to Charles de Gaulle airport, Jess.
Connacht’s demise wasn’t lost on me either. Saturday night in Grenoble was an horrendous game to lose. I had a Monday flick through the coverage at home. Brave Connacht. Thrilling Connacht. Really?
The heroic loser syndrome in Ireland must stop. It must change before we start achieving consistent success and stop operating on a “let’s take a scalp” basis. It’s like Ireland coming home after the quarter-finals of the World Cup to an airport welcome. Coming home as fallen heroes? Heaven help us.
Connacht is a harsh example, I know. But they were 19-3 and 29-16 in front before being beaten back by another — more admirable — Irish trait, manifesting itself under the watch of Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast in the south of France — defiance and belligerence.
A couple of penalties at either juncture and it was a three-score lead for Connacht. They had great moments, and Matt Healy had an exceptional game. At 19-3, any other French side would have been dead, and kudos to Grenoble for hanging in there. But the ‘Super Connacht’ reaction is misleading and just a little patronising.
Shane O’Leary did some incredibly good things and did some stuff you’d question just how and why they happened. His situation is a classic case study on the benefits of the All-Ireland League and why a competitive club structure in Ireland can underpin the growth of nascent talent. I was able to make plenty of ground-swallow-me-up mistakes in front of 5,000 people down in Limerick in the All-Ireland League. Where is O’Leary’s learning ground? This guy was fourth choice in Connacht. His crucible was a fast track in the south of France. Tough environment, even if it will accelerate his growth.
Just as Racing’s staff were on Monday counting the physical cost of making a Champions Cup semi-final, Pat Lam and his management team were weighing up any psychological damage ahead of tomorrow’s defining Pro 12 meeting for Munster. Connacht are a lock for a top four but they won’t want anything compromising their self-belief at this stage.
The mathematics are a lot simpler for Munster. Win. The days of ‘we weren’t up for it, it was only Connacht’ are no more. Munster are sick of Connacht, what they’re doing, losing to them in Thomond Park. There ought to be a lot of very quiet heads in the bus if they go down the road from Galway without winning points Saturday night. Time to stand up now.
THIS is the biggest game in Munster’s season. Players can tap into wounded pride, but that doesn’t put anything in the bank. The financial implications of Munster being out of Europe are massive. Not being in the Champions Cup would set them back an extraordinary amount, not least in their appeal to targeted players. I don’t even want to contemplate the significance of what that would mean.
Everyday spent in the office gives me a great understanding about the importance of resources. On Tuesday, as part of my coaching badge at Marcoussis, I spent the day at the French Institute of Sport in Paris’ 12th arrondissement. An annual budget of €60 million. The Irish provinces can only dream of those digits. And even that spend guarantees nothing.
Hence, the massive relief at taking out Toulon last Sunday and advancing to a Champions Cup semi-final against my old buddies, Leicester. I watched the last Maxime Machenaud kick through my fingers at the back of the stand. No one is getting too carried away with the way we played. Psychologically, though, it was a massive result. Which might explain Machenaud’s failure from the tee three minutes from time at 13-13. And he’s a lot more under his belt than Shane O’Leary.
Dan Carter was on one leg at that stage, his right knee — and standing foot — in big bother. You realise very quickly spending time around Carter that he has good information. So you listen. And you keep him on the field to marshall the troops.
If you take your work seriously, these are the games you have to be winning. Only people who have played at the top level of sport really appreciate what Toulon have done, undefeated, in Europe, over the past three years. Words don’t do it justice.
So Monday morning was a good morning. Until Laurent Labit started counting the able bodies for this weekend. Carter’s one of seven backs unavailable. It’s okay though. It’s only Toulouse away.
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