So this is what recharging the batteries actually means. It’s a first September off in 23 years. Probably longer. I’ve become a kept man, the stay-at-home dad who does the school run in the mornings, sit down for a coffee on the way back and flick through the phone to scan what’s happening outside the bubble. So, there is a world out there.
From the Prix de l’Arc at Longchamp last Sunday through to the twins’ birthday yesterday, I didn’t see a rugby ball. But that all changes tomorrow with the start of the Heineken Champions Cup. Sorry Jess, I’m just off to the Rec to watch Bath and Toulouse.
Oh, and Thomond Park next week.
Cooling the jets is a nice switch off, but of course it was never going to be complete. I’ve been all over the Mitre 10 in New Zealand, and last Saturday, experienced one of those odd out-of-body experiences watching an epic encounter unfold at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
When it stood 23-6 in favour of South Africa over the All Blacks, and again at 30-18, I had the strangest sensation of watching invincibility being stripped; a rugby game in which New Zealand were a beaten docket. These are once-in-a-generation moments but there I was, watching a game that was dead only to blow out the candle.
As the Springboks rumbled into All Black territory in the final six minutes, I am thinking ‘they are going to go 19 points up here’. After beating the All Blacks in Wellington a few weeks ago. How is this going to be to watch? An All Black team down and out, like somebody playing tricks with everything we know to be right and true: the world is round and New Zealand always win. There was that very rare feeling - it lasted only a few minutes, like viewing thewhere you are mouthing quietly to yourself: this is unbelievable. As in ‘I Can’t Believe What I Am Seeing’.
And at that stage, imagination spirits you away to a point where you are wondering how the All Blacks will comport themselves after the final whistle. Will Read pull his shell-shocked teammates together in a huddle to compose everything and camouflage their disbelief? Will their body language convey or betray anything that might be used against them a year down the road? They were taking a hammering, and you think, hang on, Ireland could now be facing this lot in the World Cup quarter-final next year. Twelve points down with six minutes to go, New Zealand had lost their anchor at that point, drifting helplessly. A great oak tree was about to fall in the rugby forest.
Imagine if the Boks had gone 19 points clear, after already winning in the Cake Tin? New Zealand would have come into the weekend hurting after Wellington, so Rassie Erasmus has clearly got South Africa back believing again. Andre Pollard was on fire, the lad is quality. But you are sitting forward on the sofa, looking for the giveaway body language. The indicator that the game is up. Stick a fork in the All Blacks.
And then they weren’t. At 30-18, the Boks turn over ball and the suspension of reality stops. Scott Barrett goes over for the try, and now I am invested in a very different way, scrutinising the Crusaders’ 10 Richie Mo’unga in his first real pressure point in an All Black jersey.
That flanker Ardie Savea burrowed over for the winning try with the last play of the game was both seismic and somewhat incidental. So much happened in the previous 79 minutes that was impossible to ignore. I still think Pretoria in October 2018 has given massive food for thought to the other nations preparing for next year’s World Cup. The Boks might have been crestfallen afterwards, but they made the world champions bleed. If Mo’unga’s last-ditch kick to the corner to set up the winning try bounces right, and not left just before the corner flag, it’s game over. It was that close to South Africa’s greatest ever victory, which I believe it would have been.
What cannot be overlooked, of course, is the utter conviction of the likes of Read and Whitelock in the All Blacks process, that system they adhere to. The next ball theory, staying in the moment, and as much as they were under the pump at Loftus Versfeld, they stuck to the plan, which is a great attribute. No-one was going off trying to find a solution on their own. New Zealand won’t change a lot between here and autumn 2019. South Africa have emerged from a state of flux and are playing for each other again. A lot of lads in Munster speak very highly of defence coach Jacques Nienaber, and they will present serious issues for New Zealand in the World Cup pool. Erasmus has set aside the prohibition on overseas players and gone with the ‘whatever it takes to win the World Cup’ model. Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux (who pitches up in Dublin tonight with Wasps) are proper additions.
There is the capacity for bolters in the final 12 months before the World Cup, but in an Irish context, it’s less and less likely nowadays. The experimentation phase is over and Joe Schmidt has ruled out anybody playing outside Ireland. Over the last 24 months, players have put down their best hand, or failed to, as the case may be. From next month’s autumn internationals on, the focus narrows. By the time the Six Nations is done, we will have a very strong sense of what Ireland will bring to Japan.
I have been at a good few of Racing 92’s games in recent weeks. ‘Goals pay the rent’, the old BBC commentator David Coleman used say. Rugby’s equivalent is tries and Simon Zebo scores plenty. There’s no Irish squad which wouldn’t be strengthened by his inclusion but it’s not going to happen. Six tries in six games in the Top 14 makes him one of the few consistent elements of Racing’s early-season form. Three defeats from the first seven games would indicate Racing have been somewhat erratic to date. Zebo hasn’t.
Losing the likes of Yannick Nyanga and Dan Carter has weakened the Racing organisation in terms of leaders on the pitch. And consistency. Here’s an example: Racing went to Stade Francais a fortnight ago in the Paris derby and win 17-16. They returned home last week and lose to Lyon. Meanwhile, Stade licked their derby wounds and travelled down to Top 14 champions Castres, where they won. Analyse that. Is it all about the top six inches in the Top 14? Yes, it is. In other countries, there’s a base level of form and acceptable performance. It’s around six out of 10. In France, they will fluctuate from a two to a nine-out-of-10. Racing go to Scarlets in the opening round of the Heineken Cup tomorrow. They’ll need to be up around eight to compete.
Munster might require a nine out of 10 to emerge victorious from Sandy Park tomorrow. I’ve watched a lot of Exeter this season. They’re a proper side, operating with complete clarity in every zone of the pitch. The only team to dismantle them last year is the only team I would put ahead of Exeter in the European power rankings — Leinster.
Leo Cullen’s side, Exeter and Saracens are the top three teams in Europe at the moment.
Leinster were on the ropes at Sandy Park last season.
It’s a huge ask of Munster without Conor Murray to pull off a victory tomorrow afternoon. Munster without Murray isn’t the same team.
Munster know that and Exeter know that. The Munster gameplan is constructed around Conor and his box-kicking, and he is fundamental to the province’s tactics. If it was all that easy to do what he does, he wouldn’t be getting a mega-bucks deal from the IRFU to stay here.
I was with him in London on Tuesday night for a Munster function and he confirmed on Wednesday his intention to remain with the province for the next three years. It’s a statement of intent by the IRFU but more importantly, it’s a ringing endorsement of the Irish system from one of the world’s most sought-after players. He’s a blue-chip presence on the field, but utterly unassuming off it. I haven’t discussed the specifics of his much-publicised (but rarely spoken-of) injury, but I have got the sense from current players they are tired of idle speculation about their injuries and the extent to which it influences their career into the future. As far as I know, it has long since been a right of a professional rugby player to be consulted by team management before their medical condition is discussed in public discourse – ie media conferences. Most players would have had no issue with that back in the day, but times are changing.
Murray’s return is not far off and when Munster get their first 15 on the pitch, they are very strong, probably No 4 in Europe. The gap to Leinster is narrowing again.
Put Murray and Chris Farrell into that back-line and it presents any opposition, including the very best in Europe, with serious problems.