Ronan O'Gara: Munster’s Saturday sweet spot, balls and all

It's 20 years since Munster did that number on Francois Pienaar’s Saracens at Thomond Park.

Ronan O'Gara: Munster’s Saturday sweet spot, balls and all

It's 20 years since Munster did that number on Francois Pienaar’s Saracens at Thomond Park. I struggle to remember two weeks ago but two decades since I still have Woody burrowing in for a last-minute try, the conversion rubbing the far post for

a bit of theatrical drama.

Because the Thomond Park crowd needed last-minute winners to get them exercised back then…

England’s finest coming to Limerick at 5.30pm on a winter Saturday has almost been the foundation stone of the Munster movement. Health and safety may not have been as stringent then.

Supporters hanging from precarious vantage points was the norm, not the problem. I finished that night with a bandage around my head, stuck together by green adhesive tape, the sort you’d keep a broken garage door closed with.

Not red tape, or black tape, but green.

The things you remember.

That victory might just have been the occasion to announce our imminent march on Europe. It certainly kickstarted the road to Twickenham for Munster’s first final a few months later. Wasps games stick out, Saracens of course, wins at The Rec, Northampton both at Franklin’s Gardens and in Limerick.

Funny the things you remember. People bring up that drop goal in 2011 against the Saints at Thomond Park and the 183 phases.

I still remember the ball. It was an Adidas ball that season, such a sweet spot on it. Perfect for kicking and made for drop goals. Things are very different on a November night in Limerick for a kicker. You want ideal conditions? Then sign for the Blue Bulls in South Africa and play at Loftus Versfeld every other week.

On this side of the world, you’re well advised to understand the moods and the idiosyncrasies of the rugby ball. How the pure cold can get into the ball and make it a more temperamental lady. Those balls shouldn’t be left sitting in a storage facility, ‘Rala’ used say to me with Ireland, losing their feel, losing the will to stay the right shape.

Fair dues, Rala, he used bring a bag of them to bed with him to keep them warm — or if not actually into bed, he’d bring them into the five-star bedroom for breathing at room temperature.

JJ Hanrahan will be talking to a Gilbert Heineken Cup ball at Thomond tomorrow. It’s a beautiful ball too and the Munster 10 will be eager to rediscover its sweet spot.

Not too eager though. The Currow man’s 27 now, mature in the ways of rugby and looking for high-level minutes and pressure situations in the pivot to give him time to see all those pictures a top out-half needs. This stuff about ‘getting back on the horse’ after Racing is all fine and readable, but he knows himself this is the perfect stage to build on that performance last time out.

In a broader context, it’s disappointing to hear that Tyler Bleyendaal is sidelined with another neck injury and I wish him the very best in his recovery. It’s an area that you just cannot be careful enough with.

I am writing this prior to team announcements so am not sure how reliable the information is that Saracens won’t travel at full strength. It’s said that the two Vunipolas, Jamie George and Owen Farrell won’t be starting. I understand that.

Clearly Mark McCall is targeting full points from every Premiership game, and their home games in Europe. He’s gambling on 10 Champions Cup points out of the Ospreys, and nine from their home ties with Munster and Racing.

If they can harvest a bonus point somewhere else, they might sneak into the top eight and then they can load up their starters for the quarter-finals in Europe.

However they respected the salary cap, the depth of their squad is undeniable so it’s not like they have to abandon their Heineken Cup chase altogether.

God help the number one-ranked side after the pool stages if they end up facing an eighth-ranked Saracens in a quarter-final because pound for pound McCall’s, side are still the best rugby side in Europe.

Cullen and company set sights on Northampton

Having seen off the table-toppers in France last time out, Leo Cullen and co turn their attention to England’s Premiership leaders tomorrow, Northampton.

It’s arguably the Heineken Cup game of the weekend, but I’m watching the progress of Ulster with interest.

Winning at The Rec first time out was really encouraging but only if they followed it up by beating Clermont.

Now they are in a good place and expectations are rising. That’s a different sort of pressure now.

They’d be extremely disappointed not to beat Quins this weekend but they need to sort their business now and not look too far ahead.

Keep an eye too on Connacht’s game in Gloucester. David Humphreys knows all about Connacht’s DNA, and the energy that brings with it.

Andy Friend and co have had two good outings thus far in Europe, but winning at Kingsholm brings with it a whole new set of possibilities.

When you’re inside the bubble, your head can spin

Did someone in Dublin suddenly lift the lid this week on Ireland’s World Cup turmoil? It was an interesting experience reading the simultaneous post-mortems of the IRFU’s David Nucifora and World Cup captain Rory Best at different events in Dublin.

Anyone who was surprised by Rory’s self-scrutiny should understand how these things work.

Bestie has gone straight from the bubble of a World Cup to retirement to the Barbarians. At this stage he is probably struggling to catch up to himself.

That gush of honesty doesn’t surprise me, he is a good guy.

When you are in the bubble, you don’t see any of this stuff about too much direction, not enough autonomy etc. You convince yourself we are all going really well.

Everything beyond the gates is just noise because we know better. And the week of the New Zealand quarter-final, things were seemingly going better than ever.

We can all relate to it. Even here at La Rochelle. Your head is spinning, and there’s so much to do, and when there’s a day off, you think ‘I’ll switch off’, but you ain’t outside the bubble baby.

There’s a million and one things to do on your wishlist but you only end up driving yourself around the bend because you’re on the treadmill. They say you never fully know how you get through these things until you are out the other side and there’s more than a grain of truth in all that.

The ability to switch off? No, haven’t mastered that yet. It was all well and good winning all the games with the Crusaders and knowing in your head that you’ve signed for La Rochelle.

You know what you are getting yourself into, but it’s only in here that you appreciate it’s bloody hard. But that’s fine too — I am up for the challenge, but boy it’s a challenge.

Here’s the funny thing. You look for parallels and similarities to my first year coaching in 2013 with Racing 92, but I struggle to even remember that first year now. Perhaps, in 20 years, I’ll remember it clearly!

Next step is winning on the road

La Rochelle entertain Glasgow in Round 3 of the Champions Cup. Losing the first two games in Europe impresses on us all the absolute necessity to put a win on the board.

Beating Castres last weekend in the Top 14 was crucial. We were 3-13 down and I was sweaty. A horrible feeling. We were 3-0 up and then Castres scrum-half Rory Kockett decides to go virtuoso on us — A penalty for 3-3, then he gets a sniff down the short side, try and conversion, and then he bombs a 50m penalty; 13-3 down on a bad night.

We held possession for two minutes before the break and scored, 13-10. Brock James levels it and our new 10, Jules Plisson comes in and has an everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold halves.

The crowd has been incredible for us. Brive got voted the best home support, but I don’t know how.

La Rochelle has now sold out 53 home games in a row in the Top 14 game, 16,000 every time.

People at home understand the value of that. From a rugby quality viewpoint, Crusaders was exceptional, but this place is pumping and we haven’t hit our straps yet.

The next step is winning on the road — Bordeaux on December 22 is in everyone’s eyeline now.

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