James Coughlan returns to the Munster starting line-up tonight a relieved man following the exploits of his back row comrades in his absence during the November Test window.
Coughlan, still patiently waiting for an Ireland debut after another four weeks in camp with the national squad, will vent his frustrations on the Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade this evening as RaboDirect Pro12 leaders Munster look to at least maintain their four-point lead at the top of the table and gear up for back-to-back Heineken Cup pool games with Perpignan next month.
Coughlan was re-integrated into his provincial set-up last Saturday night as a replacement in the victory at Cardiff Blues having been overlooked for the third Test in succession by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Yet the 32-year-old Dolphin No 8 is not wasting any time wondering about ‘what ifs’ on the international front.
“It was a frustrating few weeks I suppose but it’s great to be back,” Coughlan said.
It’s a massive run-in now for us. I think the lads have been putting in some massive work while we’ve been away and it showed in bits and pieces on Saturday night, so we have to kick on now ourselves this weekend and then to the Perpignan games. There’s a good buzz around the place now.
“The back row has been playing really well which is always frustrating when you’re watching it but CJ [Stander] and Sean [Dougall] have been outstanding and Dave [O’Callaghan] has come on leaps and bounds as well. To a man everyone has put in big performances and it’s reflected on where we are in the table.”
Being forced to look on from afar as his Munster team-mates forge ahead while having to also watch from the sidelines as Ireland kick-started the Schmidt era against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand seems to have been particularly cruel on Coughlan, but he has learned to keep his expectations and frustrations in check when it comes to Test recognition.
“It’s one of those things you get with age and experience, the selection is something you don’t have control of. What you do have control over is the knowledge, the lineouts and going through videos.
“What I can control is what I need to do, my tackle technique, my breakdown technique, my lineout calls, my video analysis. Once I do that if I’m not selected, you know, I can put my hand up. And if I am selected then I’m in a position where I can do something about it.
“Obviously you get the butterflies when the team is announced, but outside of that 10 minutes of the week there is an awful lot of hours in between that you have to be nailed down. You can’t let the lads down who are playing either by not having that detail.”
Coughlan was appreciative of the time taken by head coach Schmidt and forwards coach John Plumtree to discuss his situation as well as lessons learned about game preparation from his long-time Munster colleague and new Ireland captain Paul O’Connell.
“It can be frustrating but I spoke with Joe and John and they were extremely positive in what I brought to camp. Maybe if an injury here or there had gone my way I would have got a run. But look, you just try and bring as much as you can of yourself to every session and every training and all the detail that goes on behind the scenes.
“If you were put in, that you were just able to bring yourself to it, which is something I think that a lot of us have picked up from Paulie — nail down the detail and then you can just play rugby. Whereas if you are worried about the detail it can take you that second mentally, which then takes away physically from whatever you do.
“It’s a great buzz now going forward. It’s devastating in one sense but there is a camp around Christmas I think and the lads will pick through the bones of that (defeat to New Zealand).
“They’ll be looking to make sure that it’s a leaping point rather than it being a one-off. That’s the level that lads need to perform at and if we perform at that level then we are competitive.”
And in a team culture where the positives are taken from everything, Coughlan brings a definite plus point from his time in Ireland camp into the Munster set-up.
“I’m in a better place physically because I didn’t get any week off. I was training for the four weeks... the mileage is up there, I feel fit and healthy and to be honest I’m raring to go now and looking forward to it at the weekend because there’s only so much training you can do before you want to go out and start hitting fellas again!”
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