There is still just enough room in rugby’s hard-nosed professional age for a spark of romance — and tomorrow’s Munster-Racing reunion is special for one member of the French side’s coaching team.
Mike Prendergast, a Limerick man through and through, joined Racing 92 as attack and backs coach this summer after a year at Top 14 rivals Stade Francais. Before moving into coaching, the former scrum-half had two spells with the province between 2000 and 2009, and then coached Young Munster until 2013, when he moved to France and teamed up with Bernard Jackman on the coaching ticket at Grenoble.
While a year playing with Bourgoin in 2006 coincided with the French side heading to Limerick in the old Heineken Cup, this is the first time he has been to Thomond as a coach.
“I was born down the road, my family home is only 10 minutes down the road, so it’s all very local,” he said.
I remember coming to Thomond Park when I played with Bourgoin, back in the day. Now to go back as a coach, it’s not the same as being a player and being out there on the pitch, but it’s the next best thing. I’m looking forward to it.
The reception, especially, is one he will savour. “It’s going to be a huge atmosphere — it always is when you’re playing here. The World Cup is over; the Limerick public have probably been starved a little of rugby over the past couple of months — and there’s nothing better than a French team coming to Thomond Park on a Saturday. They’ll be ready for us, the fans.”
Ever the professional, however, Prendergast has put that homecoming feeling to one side. His duty is to the Top 14 outfit, and making sure the players are ready for Thomond’s traditional visceral Champions Cup atmosphere.
Recent experience — as well as the inside knowledge of ex-Munster duo Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan — will help them handle the pressure when they walk out of the tunnel into a wall of noise on Saturday, Prendergast believes.
The sides have a special relationship. They have been drawn together in the same European pool three times in the past four seasons, and were due to meet in Paris on the day Anthony Foley died in October 2016. Tragedies like that create a unique, unbreakable bond.
Both opened their Champions Cup accounts last weekend with bonus-point wins. A day after Munster scored a dramatic last gasp bonus-point win over the Ospreys last weekend, Racing beat a weakened and salary cap-distracted Saracens 30-10 to top Pool Four by the slimmest of points-difference margins after one game.
It was a perfect result, but not a perfect game at La Defense Arena. “When you get five points in any Champions Cup game you have to be pleased,” Prendergast said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.
“Performance-wise we were pleased against Saracens, but there are still a lot of work-ons and obviously we’re still integrating a lot of internationals back into the group from the World Cup, like every other team. For a first Champions Cup game, though, we’re pleased enough.”
Prendergast is keenly aware of the next-level test his players will face this weekend: “Munster at Thomond Park brings its own challenges, with the fanatical support they have.
“They really get behind the team. Fortunately, the lads have played there twice in the past four years, so they have experienced it. When we played Saracens at the weekend, we were at home [on an artificial surface]. The speed of the ball, ruck time and everything was quicker - it will probably be slower on a grass pitch. We will have to adapt to that quickly.”
Even experience may not be enough for Racing, however. Munster are ‘kings of playing at home’, Prendergast said, who will pounce on every error, unavoidable or not. “Mistakes will happen. And when mistakes happen, Munster look to put you under pressure. That’s where they really enforce their authority, especially at Thomond. When you make a mistake, they get confidence from that - and then the crowd does, and they feed off the crowd.
“It’s how you react to those mistakes that matters most. There have been big moments in games over the years when a mistake kicks in and two or three follow quickly after. We’ve got to stay mentally focused and worry about the next job. We’ve got to react well.”
A recent turnaround in fortunes at Racing following a slow start to their domestic season, in which they have flirted with the foot of the table, has coincided with the return of the club’s World Cup contingent.
Their Champions Cup victory over Saracens last Sunday followed a decisive Top 14 win over Paris rivals Stade Francais - one which prompted the resignation of Stade coach Heyneke Meyer.
“The World Cup players have reintegrated quite well. The most important thing, for me, was that we performed better [against Saracens] than we did the previous week against Stade. It was a good performance against Saracens - we got five points against Stade as well, but everything went up a notch on Sunday. We held on to the ball well, we defended - we played well on both sides of the ball, but everything started from our set piece.
“Our set-piece functioned very well and we put their set-piece under pressure. From that point of view, it was a good start. But it was only the first game. There are six games in the pool stage and there’s a massive one this weekend.
“We’ll have to be a lot better than we were on Sunday to be in with a shout of beating Munster at home. We’ve got to be smart in how we play. Munster are a very good defensive side. We’ve got to keep them guessing.
“It’ll come down to who wins the collisions and the breakdown. It’s easy to say we’ve got to keep hold of the ball, but it also depends on winning the collisions, because when you do, your ruck, your breakdown becomes better and quicker - and that gives you an advantage. Physically we need to be up there. That’s what Munster bring, and that is where the challenge lies for us at the weekend, that we bring that physicality with us. Everything follows from that.”
As well as the breakdown battle, Prendergast is under no illusions about the where Johann van Graan’s side are strongest.
Their aerial game is very good and they obviously have a very good set piece. They’ll look to squeeze us in all areas — the breakdown, the kicking area and set piece.
“They bring a lot of linespeed in defence, too.”
He promised a surprise or two from the French side. “We’ve a couple of things that we’re keeping to ourselves at the moment and hopefully we’ll bring them out on Saturday.”