Tommy O’Donnell braced for real test of Munster progress

Tommy O’Donnell believes Munster’s current winning run will count for nothing if there are not further improvements in the upcoming European clashes with Leicester Tigers.

The province will go into this weekend’s Champions Cup home clash with their old European rivals on the back of six consecutive victories. Yet with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus describing their latest win, a narrow Pro12 defeat of Glasgow Warriors last Friday at Scotstoun, in less than glowing terms, O’Donnell knows the step up to a bigger stage this weekend will require commensurate gains in performance levels.

“Like all teams, you naturally have to look at the next game and step it up from the last,” O’Donnell said. “We have players coming back from a tough international window. They have players coming back who only played last weekend for England at an international intensity, so we are going to have to raise our game from that perspective to take on players who are used to international intensity and who are used to that type of game.

“We have some tough games to come and we have to naturally get better, because if you stand on your laurels you will get passed out.”

Munster are much-changed on and off the field from that December night a year ago when Richard Cockerill’s Tigers ran out comfortable 31-19 winners at Thomond Park and then did the double the following week with a 17-6 victory at Welford Road in round four.

“I think we are being a little bit more clinical in certain areas,” O’Donnell said. “Last year, it was just ball control. It wasn’t down to coaching, it wasn’t down to a player specifically going out and playing badly. At times, when we needed to hold on to the ball, we lost it.

“This year we are being more clinical. We are getting scores at the right time. Defence is very strong this year too. It is somewhere we can lean on. We are definitely going to have to lean on it this weekend.”

Flanker O’Donnell, who twice captained the side during last month’s November window in the absence of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Billy Holland, agreed with the suggestion there was less anxiety on the ball and less pressure this season compared to last.

“There are a lot of players expressing themselves this year. There are players coming out and putting their hands up. Players do feel freer to play and have a go. That is something that is really being encouraged in this system. You are the player. You are what makes the system work and have a go.”

Munster have every reason to feel good about themselves given the winning run — which started with an emotion-laden European win at home to Glasgow the day after head coach Anthony Foley’s funeral in October — has also sent them to the top of the PRO12 with the meanest defence in the league.

Yet they are still playing catch-up in Europe following the postponement of their pool opener at Racing 92 in the aftermath of Foley’s sudden death in Paris on the eve of the scheduled game. With five games still to play in the pool, including the rearranged Racing game in the French capital on January 7, there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead.

“Yes, there is confidence there, but I don’t think we can be overconfident,” O’Donnell said. “You definitely cannot be overconfident going into Europe. You can say you are the best defence in the PRO12, but that doesn’t count in Europe. We are a game behind in the European competition, so we need to take each European game as a separate event and look after the overall performance. Every player needs to perform and you will usually get the win if every player performs.”

O’Donnell is relishing another big European match day at Thomond Park, with ticket sales now pushing past 23,000 and heading for a sell-out on Saturday afternoon. Now 29, the Tipperary back rower was in the Munster Academy when Leicester did what no other European visitor had done before and left Limerick with a victory and he recalled the impact their 13-6 win in January 2007 had in the province.

“There was a sense of shock about it,” he said. “You have to admire how Leicester came and did it that night too. They came out and they performed.

“You hear stories about how they were in the cinema in Castletroy the night before and were just relaxed about the whole thing and put in a real performance. I think it is a great analogy about how rugby should be played. You don’t need to do much before a game, just come out and put in some physicality into the game and perform.”

That first European defeat is a distant memory now but there is still plenty to admire in the current Leicester set-up with the Tigers moving up to fourth in the English Premiership last weekend following a victory over East Midlands rivals Northampton.

“They are similar to ourselves,” O’Donnell said. “They have a good defence. They have a strong kicking game. They have a good back row too. They are well able to scavenge on the ground, so obviously the breakdown will be massive for us this weekend.

“They are a good team and they cannot be taken lightly. They are fourth in the Premiership now, having won their last four games, so they are a team on the uptick as well. It will be an interesting game.”

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