Munster had to beat the Ospreys three times in one game last weekend, but it will stand them in good stead tomorrow in Belfast says Ronan O'Gara.
They’ll go into the Pro 12 final against Glasgow in a better place mentally, having made those mistakes, as there will be a fear factor about not closing out the game.
I thought Glasgow would offer more in a home semi-final at Scotstoun; Ulster led them for the majority of the game but never got more than one score ahead, and then with a late try and conversion, they didn’t have any time to reply.
Munster have more guys who’ve experienced big games than Glasgow, which gives them an edge. Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and BJ Botha spring to mind here, although Conor Murray is a big loss if, as expected, he doesn’t recover in time.
That represents a massive opportunity for Duncan Williams, who is probably the most lambasted player who has played professional rugby for Munster. When a scapegoat is needed, he is always there. In my columns I’ve never been afraid to call things as I see them, and if I didn’t think he was up to it, I’d say so.
But the criticism Williams gets just isn’t accurate. I’ve trained and played a lot with him, and while he has undoubtedly had poor games, he never gets the praise he deserves when he has a good one. Williams has a running, passing and kicking game and he’s like a little pit bull terrier. His main problem is he needs to know how to manage his body — he plays like a back rower and gets crushed attempting to poach balls against fellas twice his size.
You have to admire his resilience, in every sense. He has come through a huge number of form and injury setbacks, but he has hung on for years at Munster when others have fallen by the wayside, either moving clubs or dropping out of the professional game altogether.
He went on an Ireland Schools tour in 2004 with Johnny Sexton — who has huge time for him — as his half-back partner and when you’ve had a taste for rugby at that elite level, it’s hard to let it go. But I admire him hugely for sticking with it through all that criticism from internet warriors.
During my playing days, I admit I used to go online to see what was being said about me. Then-Munster coach Tony McGahan got so much abuse on one particular discussion board that he ordered for it to be shut down, which was fascinating. I remember asking him about it — he was obviously very hurt by it, and I don’t think you can live your life like that.
Ian Keatley is another who knows how this goes. He’s been a target for online abuse in the past and probably was again after such a below-par goal-kicking display against the Ospreys. Accepting legitimate criticism isn’t an issue for most professionals, but it’s the wild swings of extreme opinions that can grate. I’m specifically thinking of how many people wrote off Paul O’Connell, a spent force they said, after Munster were beaten by Saracens in January. Fast forward to the end of the Six Nations two months later, and he was player of the championship.
The only man in Irish rugby who has unanimous approval right now is Joe Schmidt, but for most players and coaches it changes like the wind. Matt O’Connor left Leinster last week with plenty of criticism ringing in his ears. I believe Schmidt when he says he had nothing to do with the Australian’s departure, despite their very public disagreement over the IRFU’s player management system.
I gather O’Connor wanted a decision on his future by October, in terms of potentially extending his contract by another year. Leinster weren’t sure however, and I think their thought process was that if he’s told in October his contract isn’t being renewed, how will the season go? So both parties were willing to cut their losses.
Leinster’s standards are very high these days; O’Connor won a Pro12 last season, playing good rugby, and twice reached the knockout stages in Europe, but their run-in in this season’s Pro12 cost him. It’s clear there’s been a decline, that overall standards have dropped and once that creeps in, it’s hard to arrest that slide.
Leinster will therefore take their time ensuring they get the right man. His personality will be as important as anything; Michael Cheika, Schmidt and O’Connor all had different approaches towards dealing with the players and that will inform the province’s selection process.
No matter how experienced or successful players are, they get all their direction from the boss man. He’s the fulcrum of the organisation, the most important person along with the manager and the head of strength and conditioning. He has to gauge the mood of his squad and design the team’s culture from there.
Between Munster, Ireland and the Lions, I’ve worked with every type of coach — ones who keep a big distance between them and the squad, others who are softly spoken but firm, some screamers and shouters and some who get too friendly with the players. You’ve got to accept that as a coach, you’re isolated, you’re not one of the lads. It’s the number one rule. If you get too friendly with them, you will make the situation unworkable.
When I finished playing, I would have dearly loved to go straight into working with Munster in a coaching capacity. There wasn’t an opening for me in any case, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that wouldn’t have worked. I’m glad I went to France to cut my teeth as a coach with Racing Metro in a completely different setting. You have a different bond with guys you’ve played with, and having to give bad news to them wouldn’t be easy.
In Racing, I had to try to earn respect as a coach and develop the ability to command a room in a new environment, in a different language. Hopefully I’ve made progress in that regard, but it was daunting and intimidating at the time.
Whoever takes over at Leinster will need to earn that respect too, to help them make the couple of tweaks required to break Toulon and Clermont’s stranglehold on European rugby.
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