RONAN O'GARA: What happens when the stuff you’ve studied doesn’t come up in an exam?

Scarlets’ Jonathan Davies is staggeringly underrated in Ireland, perhaps because he will always be the one who ‘took’ Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions jersey four years ago in Australia, writes Ronan O’Gara.

I read this week that 268 internationally capped players appeared in the Guinness PRO12 this season. Undoubtedly over the last four or five years, its significance has increased, as has its quality. Clubs have to keep a weather eye on business at home as well as getting all glammed up for Europe.

Leinster took their eye off the ball last Friday, which was bizarre. They scored 91 tries in regular season, but struggled to be any way inventive against 14 men for the second half of their semi-final at home to Scarlets. I knew from watching five minutes of the Scarlets semi an upset was on the cards. The body language of the Leinster players screamed they were there for the taking. Difficult to fathom. Then there were those few minutes when Evans got red-carded and it felt like Leinster would kick on, but they never did. Ten minutes after the break, I knew Leinster hadn’t a hope.

It rekindled one of the most intriguing debates about sports people, one that fascinates me about the regular season v the play-offs and the ability to peak for certain weeks of the year. What separates a team that gets over the line from a team that can’t? How much of that is associated with the coaching staff and how much with the players?

No-one can use Leinster as a case study in coming up short, but there is an interesting dynamic at play here about where player responsibility begins and ends. And whether players need to be spoon-fed instructions or not. Coaches create game-based scenarios and they walk through them and play through them from Monday to Friday. But players must find the solutions when the exams questions don’t match the bit you studied. Did the Leinster players change tack and tactics when Scarlets went down to 14 just before half-time? Honestly, the timing was ideal for Leinster. They had the interval break to organise. One thing that seemed obvious, even from afar, was the amount of unexploited space in the Scarlets backfield. Even against 14 men, it’s no harm to kick the ball or to play territory. It’s cup rugby.

The capability to read stuff on the run, as we’ve said here, is fundamental for the modern-day player – in any sport. We hear all the time there are very small margins between winning and losing, and in the case of the top teams, that is true. Barcelona and Real Madrid. Closer to home, if you are talking about Dublin and Kerry, I understand the small margins explanation.

Because both know how to win. But if Mayo talk about the small margins, how do they know, for instance? They have gone close, so believe they’re close. The bad news for them is there’s a fair gap to bridge still. Some teams don’t know where the finishing line is. How could they when they’ve never breached it?

I’d hope this week, after six years without a trophy, the younger lads in Munster might be thinking ‘Jeez, those old fellas must have been handy enough to have a couple of European medals and get to four Heineken finals’. And they might remind themselves too time is ticking, and it’s a while since the O’Connells, the Hayes’s, Leamys and Quinlans hung up their boots. We are at the end of another European and PRO12 season. Silverware is imperative and Munster ain’t got any for a while.

Silverware gets you over that invisible line. It gives you the confidence to have a realistic degree of goal-setting next August, as opposed to just spouting nonsense. This comes back to the earlier question: What separates a team that gets over the line from a team that can’t?

Bath look brilliant at times, they really do. I’d say from Monday to Friday, they’re as good as anyone in Europe. But put an opposition like Stade Francais in front of them, and they’re short. There were proven Leinster achievers on the pitch last Friday night and while they were presumably disgusted by what happened against the Scarlets, they know too for the younger lads, it was a massive opportunity lost to propel themselves forward again. From a players’ point of view, winning in May gives you the belief you were able to find a solution on the run, that you found a way to win.

A squad can talk as much as they want before the game or in the reviews. There’s 80 minutes to solve the riddle. Leinster look pre-rehearsed, too predictable for too long last Friday. At some stage, someone on the pitch needed to go ‘this isn’t working’.

There’s two bloody good sides at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Munster know there is a front-door option and a back-door option in terms of how to negate Jonathan Davies, the Scarlets talisman.

In Ireland, Davies is staggeringly underrated, perhaps because he will always be the one who ‘took’ Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions jersey four years ago in Australia. But anyone who studies him realises he is a very good player. Scarlets have serious momentum, it’ll be 22 degrees on a hard pitch with an extra five metres of space. They will play fast, Munster will look to run over them. It’s a one-score game. So, what will separate the good player from the achiever? The Mayo from the Kerry or Dublin? The fella who is able to trust his instincts at a killer moment?

That’s why I have renewed confidence Racing 92 could do the unthinkable over the next two weeks and defend the Top 14 title we won last year. With all that’s gone on in Paris this year, if I’d said that before now I’d have been carted off in a padded van. Last Saturday we were given no hope going to Montpellier in the play-offs, and won 22-13.The scoreline was misleading. We should have won by 30. When the big moments arrive, the Joe Rokocokos and the Dan Carters stand up. Tomorrow we are in Marseille for the semi against Clermont- Auvergne.

We’re second favourites again but we’ve been over the line before. (By the way, I made another note in my coaching diary last week. Wherever I go as a coach in the future, I’m bringing two quality 10s with me. The value of a good out-half remains more important than any other position on the pitch.)

Munster have signalled they will again start Francis Saili in the centre. Even though he is leaving, that underlines what the Erasmus coaching team thinks of him. I’ll admit I wanted Racing to sign him and I thought I had a shot, but I was told our recruitment for next season was finished, so he was closed off as an option. He’ll probably go to Harlequins where he will be handsomely rewarded for his talents. But he’s a big loss to Munster. I suspect they have lost out here purely on the basis of euros.

Francis Saili
Francis Saili

But let’s be consistent on this: we do not know the fine detail, and there are so many sides to these negotiations. But the Munster supporters have a good way of cutting to the chase on such matters, and the fact he won’t be at the province next season is a serious blow.

Whatever he cost Harlequins, he’s a good piece of business. He was out injured for quite a while, but last Saturday against the Ospreys, he was central to everything good Munster did with the ball. Without it too. Look at the way he covered back when Keelan Giles was set to score down in the right corner for Ospreys. The acceleration and determination he showed to cover Keith Earls said plenty about a guy heading to more lucrative pastures. He cares. And, of course, it kick-started the attack that produced one of the tries of the season. Today will reveal whether he starts, but he’s a game-changer. Can Munster afford not to?

One point to finish on another game-changer, England’s Billy Vunipola. He was the player Warren Gatland could least afford to lose heading to New Zealand. He is your extra 10%.

With him in the back-row, he was a great foil in between whichever flankers were selected for the tests. But his absence destabilises the balance in the back row to such an extent it influences the chances of others playing. It’s a lot harder now to start a Justin Tipuric in one of the tests, because the Lions would get out-matched without Vunipola in that equation. He is the biggest possible loss for the Lions.

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