It is the nature of the beast that when rugby players delve into the memory banks of games past, it is the disappointments they reach first.
Not the tries scored or the heroic last-ditch tackle, but the momentum-changing knock-on or the costly defensive lapse.
So it is for Peter O’Mahony, yet the Munster captain has learned to embrace the negatives and use the pain in an effort to forge better moments. That is certainly the case this week as his injury-hit team prepares to welcome mighty Toulon to Thomond Park for Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final. Fear of revisiting those times of hurt will be motivating Munster, at least in part.
“Unfortunately the bad memories are always the ones that stick out, and you always have a little bit of fear driving you on,” O’Mahony said. “Not that you’ll sit down and think about it, but you’ll get a flashback and they’re not feelings you want to have again.
“Certainly they affect you as you go on through your career, the ones that you’ve left behind you and the ones that you’ve been beaten up in as well. That’s part of being an elderly fella who has played a few times in the knockout stages and been beaten. You don’t want to be back there again.”
“All the ones you have lost in Europe they all hurt for a long, long time after. They probably shouldn’t. But in this game they do because it is what you are here for. We have to use that hurt.”
Less than two weeks after experiencing the highs of a career-first Grand Slam with Ireland, it seems strange for O’Mahony to be referencing hurt but these are trying times in Munster given their long list of injuries, including the unavailability of back-row comrades Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell.
That leaves head coach Johann van Graan without an experienced openside flanker to take on Toulon’s battle-hardened back-row warriors, whichever of their world-class options Fabien Galthie selects.
O’Mahony’s return to the Munster ranks after a week’s post-Six Nations rest came last Monday, the day after he had watched Toulon demolish French Top14 rivals and fellow European quarter-finalists Clermont Auvergne 49-0 at Stade Mayol, a performance and scoreline enough to bring even the most light-headed of rugby professional down to earth.
“You’re coming back home and settling in, and you know you’ve got the biggest week in the club’s year so far coming up, so it focuses the mind. Obviously, Toulon coming here in the quarter-final of Europe, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
“If you needed a way to focus the mind you watch their performance over the weekend against Clermont. I know Clermont will be disappointed with some of the aspects of their play but it was a very impressive, relentless performance from Toulon, so, not that you needed to focus, but that would certainly do it for you.”
In many ways, Toulon’s big result last weekend will also help to entrench Munster’s perception of themselves as underdogs, a position that has served the province perfectly well in similar situations over the years.
“We probably will (thrive on that),” O’Mahony said. “But that doesn’t change our mindset of our training process. We’ll treat it as a normal week. We’ll try to get our training performances to be the best of the year and hopefully that’ll feed into Saturday.
“There’s been days certainly when we’ve been written off. You come out with a big performance, but it’s not just from that. It comes from a lot of factors and a lot of them will start with some of our training and progress through the week and guys have got to be ready for a big one.
“They are a well decorated European team, they are guys who know what it takes to win, guys who have won before, guys who want to play and want to win, and they are probably the most difficult team to play against.”
Never mind what game plan van Graan asks his players to execute, O’Mahony knows exactly how it will need to be implemented.
“We have got to bring a huge physicality, a big part of Toulon and a lot of these French teams, is that they beat you up. It is hard to stop.
“We played Racing over there (in round five of the pool phase). Two tries, 14 points later, and we kind of felt ‘what hit us?’ I mean, it was relentless stuff. And it is difficult to stop.
“So if I was going to pick one thing, it would be to stop their momentum. That is certainly easier said than done. You try and stop them at source, by going after their set-piece. It is not like I am giving away big parts of what we have to do. We go after set-piece, their momentum givers, breakdown we have to be immaculate and our discipline has to be incredible. We are going to be under the pump at times and we have got to be squeaky clean when it comes to this, because they will chip away at us as well. “
It will, as always, come down to Munster making the most of the opportunities that present themselves during the big moments of Saturday’s showdown at Thomond Park.
“Yes, 100%,” O’Mahony said. “We certainly have the team to create chances and we have been doing it all year but we might not have that many at the weekend but when we do get down there we have got to convert.”
Saturday: Thomond Park, 3.15pm
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
TV: Sky Sports
Bet: Munster 8/13, Toulon 11/8, Draw 18/1
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