‘I guess it’s all about pressure. I know pressure and understand there are big moments in a game,’ says Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Munster v Scarlets
Saturday: Aviva Stadium, 6.15pm
Referee: TBC TV: Sky Sports, TG4
As both a player and a coach Rassie Erasmus has won some games and lost others when the season has reached the knockout rounds and the Munster boss is convinced the winning of them is based on mentality as much as tactics and technique.
It was what the South African learned most about his young players from their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens on April 22 and the director of rugby was delighted they took the lessons on board smartly enough to apply them in last Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 last-four win over Ospreys.
At Thomond Park last weekend, Munster did what they had failed to do at the Aviva Stadium four weeks previously, seizing the day and making the big moments matter to break open a tight game and put distance between them and their opponents.
The way the men in red did so underscored the impact. It was a spectacular try that turned the game, started deep in their own half by Keith Earls and Francis Saili off a long clearance kick, and finished by Simon Zebo.
Yet this Saturday, back at the Aviva, the province will need to do that all over again if they are to win the PRO12 final and grab their first piece of silverware since 2011, and while they’re at it stop a potentially rampant Scarlets side from making their momentum-shifting periods of play count.
Erasmus, who said he was likely to stick with his midfield pairing of Rory Scannell and the departing Saili for this Saturday’s final, maintaining the latter’s game-breaking capabilities for one last time.
“I guess it’s all about pressure. I know pressure and understand there are big moments in a game,” Erasmus said.
“It’s probably a bit of a cliché, but big moments turn play-off rugby.
“Sometimes you get a lot of belief or lose a lot of belief. I thought it was a big moment (against Ospreys, with Munster leading 8-3 on 60 minutes) when we couldn’t score in the 22, but then they kicked the ball and we actually scored from that one to relieve the pressure on ourselves.
"Against Saracens, we had 10 minutes just before half-time when we were on their try-line and could have scored to turn the pressure around. I don’t think it’s a technical and tactical thing we learned, it’s more a mind thing.
"We applied it on Saturday and we’ll definitely need it next Saturday. Scarlets are hitting form and had big moments with 14 men on the pitch.”
Erasmus was referring to the West Wales region’s famous 27-15 victory over Leinster at the RDS last Friday night when Wayne Pivac’s side first clinically punished sloppy home play with two tries in four minutes midway through the first-half, then survived the sending off of Steffan Evans just before the interval to outscore the Blues 6-5 in the second period.
The Scarlets performance, high-octane and creative in attack while dominant at the breakdown, drew comparisons with the type of sunshine rugby seen in Super Rugby, but Erasmus sees something different.
“I think we play very similarly. Scarlets, I think, have the second most runs in the competition and employ a lot of kicking. They changed it from the first few games they played. Tactically they are a well-coached team and you can see they’re on a run of unbelievable results.
“After they beat us here, they went and got a good smack off Leinster. Then they go and beat Leinster with 14 men. They’ve changed their tactics through the season.
"We’ll stick to our guns. We only know one way to play which has worked for us. If we want to change, we’ll have to do some stuff in the pre- season.”
Munster’s journey to the last four of both European and domestic competition may be Erasmus’s first taste of Northern Hemisphere knockout rugby but back in South Africa, the former Springbok flanker had plenty of play-off success, captaining the Cats to the 2000 Super 12 semi-finals, and coaching the Cheetahs to a first Currie Cup title in nine years in 2005.
Nevertheless, the PRO12 has been another steep learning curve to climb in his debut season as Munster boss.
“The PRO12, for me, is the competition the season ticket holders pay for. That’s the thing you have to be consistent for all year.
"You lose players to internationals, injuries, it’s a long season of 22 matches and you play different styles – you play a Welsh team and then an Italian team. It’s such an interesting competition, so when you get to a final the trick is to understand totally how the opposition is playing.
“Comparing what we faced against Ospreys to this week is a totally different style. If this final was Ospreys, we would have tackled – not physically – the week totally different. Scarlets are a complete team... because they’ve played Saracens twice.
"A lot of teams learn a lot after you play Saracens. I think their gameplan changed a little bit after they played Saracens twice. Hopefully we can also use that. My previous finals: won a few, lost a few. So I can’t use all of that.”
What Erasmus can use is the experience of a remarkable first campaign in Ireland which may have brought early and unexpected progress but one he would now consider a disappointment if Munster did not finish the job this weekend.
“I’d be lying if I said to you that even if we lose, it has been a great season. It probably was an okay season. But we really want to win, as much as they want to win. It’s two teams who really match up well.
"For us, it’s a definite benefit playing in Ireland. We really want to win. It would be a wonderful season if we won it. But after the unbelievable thing (Scarlets) did in beating Leinster away from home with 14 men.
"As the underdogs, knowing the stat that it has never been done by an away team in a semi-final. So they will be really confident. We would be trying to be really confident as well, going there to win. So it is really important for us to win.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved