Munster fires still burning brightly for Marcus Horan

It doesn’t take Marcus Horan long to highlight the most notable contrasts between his playing days and the current crop of men proudly wearing the red of Munster.

Munster fires still burning brightly for Marcus Horan

“The difference with what we went through and what the lads are going through now is the expectation”, he admits.

“We used to get messages before those games going, ‘ye have given us a great year’ and they were nearly saying, no matter what happens today we don’t mind ...

“Whereas now the lads are getting messages where they’re expecting them to win every game.”

But the more things change, the more they stay the same in other ways.

“The Munster spirit will always be there and it’s been instilled in the foreign players who have come in.

“I look at Jaco Taute and how he has bought into what is here. He gets it. He gets the Munster way. He doesn’t just walk in.

“That Munster mindset comes from the Billy Hollands and Peter O’Mahonys and the people around him. When he sees how much it means to them ... that’s why their role is so important. The passion that Paul O’Connell showed on the pitch is still there”.

And Horan has an interesting theory on how players and supporters view the priorities of the province and the national team.

He recalled with a smile: “There would have been an element (in my playing days) of returning from the Six Nations and you’d have a lot of Munster supporters telling you, ‘now the real work starts for the European Cup.’

“I remember fellas before heading off to Irish camp, friends and relations, going – be careful up there, we need you back here for May. “That’s the way people thought about it from a Munster point of view”.

Now he observes: “An element of that has changed. The Irish team has probably taken precedence a lot more. This has likely come from the unity of the players and maybe the coaches. Ireland has become more important to everybody.

"Irish supporters are expecting a Six Nations Championship or thereabouts every year and it does take from the provincial stuff a little bit”.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Horan’s love for the Munster team and what it represents has dissipated in any way.

“I loved last weekend”, he enthused of the Welford Road win.

“It felt like the old days. Leinster went out on Saturday and put in a big, big performance. You know bloody well the Munster lads were watching in the team room and going ... ‘if they can do it, we have to do it as well’.

"Those are great motivators when you see the other teams doing well and the last two weeks have been great for club rugby in Ireland. Leinster are close to qualifying and Munster are saying, if they’re going to qualify, we’re going to qualify too”.

Horan is confident they can do that - and more: “The group is relatively new and relatively young”, he points out.

“When I say new, I suppose I’m referring to foreign guys who have come in and maybe are finding their feet. And then with everything that has gone coaching wise with Axel’s passing and Rassie moving on, there has been a lot of disruption.

"Couple that with Donnacha Ryan going to France and Simon Zebo announcing that he’s moving on as well and all the contract talk that was going on with Peter and CJ — there was so much floating around.

“So the place may seem very unsettled to people on the outside. But really, the constant has been the senior players and current staff and the likes of Jerry and Felix guiding the ship. They all deserve massive credit. I see maturity in them this year that maybe I haven’t seen before.

"The manner of the losses against Saracens and Scarlets at the tail end of last season put a dampener on the year. But last Sunday in Leicester, there were a couple of incidents, like when one of their guys made a big break up the middle of the field and Chris Cloete made the tackle and turned him over.

"Then Johnny Ryan got sin-binned and there were a couple of things that happened that made you fear they were going to blow it. But there was that maturity to see out a game that was very impressive.

“One of the things that epitomised it was Ian Keatley’s reaction to an early dropped ball - he laughed it off and told Pete it was a lousy pass and that was a sign of a very different man.

"He scored 20 points and he has epitomised their growth as a group because he is so much more mature at dealing with pressure. And then you have Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold, two key players in positions where we thought we couldn’t do without Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute.

"Leicester brought in two fresh, big guys at home and the boys still managed them. And all the time you have lots of guys who were missing. It’s incredible how they have managed given all the adversities they have had over the last couple of years but they have matured quicker than we expected.

"And all this when they hardly knew the identity of the head coach from one month to the next.

“They have gone out and taken ownership of it themselves”, stresses Marcus Horan. “That’s what’s going to stand to them when they’re in difficulties on a pitch away from home. It’s not that long ago when we had the whole controversy of the Stade Francais game and how they seemed to capitulate.

"But those guys used that as a learning experience. There was speculation about Keatley leaving during the summer and it could have been easy for him to go off into the darkness and play rugby somewhere else.

"But with the way he’s playing, he’s number one now and been capped again for Ireland and for me he epitomises the way Munster have gone over the past couple of months”.

* Marcus Horan is a key figure in the newly named “Rugby Players Ireland”, part of whose ambition is to acquaint the game’s young players with the work of the Simon Community. Last week the 30 strong provincial academy along with coaches Peter Malone and Declan O’Donoghue and Horan spent three hours filling foodbaskets as part of the Simon Christmas campaign.

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