European dead rubbers make my blood boil

9 January 2017

I didn’t mind that there were only four or five reporters present for our pre-Munster briefing on Wednesday. I expected that, and the questions they asked. Hard as it is for anyone at home to conceive, tomorrow’s Champions Cup game in Colombes is registering between low and nothing for followers of French rugby.

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The big clash here this weekend is the Top 14 meeting of Clermont and Toulon.

It’s been that odd sort of week, one of anger, annoyance, and regrets. Munster sentimentality is the least of the emotions.

The first press briefing question was about Axel, the second and the third as well. Munster thankfully will use a different Paris hotel tonight than the one they did in October, and right they are too. Putting the Munster players and backroom team back into that nightmare afternoon would bring an all-too-real sense of déjà vu for too many of them. That affects preparation.

Was I surprised at the global outpouring of emotion of empathy after Foley’s death, a reporter asked. Not even slightly. Axel, Gaillimh, and Claw fostered the culture that remains uniquely Munster to this day.

They created the Munster way. That’s why I am annoyed — we should be bracing ourselves for two great teams going at each other, the champions of France against the heavyweights of Europe.

There’s a little hurt there this week. This is the first European Cup pool game in my entire career as player or coach that means nothing. Imagine that. That’s only a personal frustration I accept, but I take fierce pride in European achievement and always have.

I have no previous experience of this and it’s anathema to me. It makes my blood boil.

And there are three dead rubbers before the end of January. To be so irrelevant in a competition many old Munster pros retain treasured memories of is a sore one and it’s grouched me out over the past few days. I’ll be an expert on dead rubbers by the end of the pool phase.

Racing name the team this afternoon and I won’t be accused of insider trading by confirming the number of changes from last week’s 17-11 defeat in Toulon will be substantial.

Don’t think though Racing will be throwing this game under a bus. You should be winning your home games in Europe.

We have a very important month ahead and we will use the two Munster games and the Leicester tie in Paris to mix and match our assets as we look to a key pod of games coming up in the Top 14 against Lyon, Bayonne, Brive, and Grenoble. Four wins there could turn our season around.

A reporter asked Wednesday about the rights and wrongs of not playing our strongest team against Munster. “What is our strongest team at the moment?” I wondered. The reality is this: Racing has places up for grabs. We are looking for individuals to be displaying better form than at present.

Big players can become bigger players when they get that taste of winning something. But there’s another side here: Big players can become very average when they win something once.

And a few of them have fallen into that category. People pointed the finger already at Northampton and their selection for the game in Dublin, but unless you are operating in a league with relegation, then don’t lecture to those who do on priorities. What do people expect? We are eighth in the Top 14 and folk want us to go full out for the Champions Cup when we are dead?

We will try different combinations over the next three weeks. There won’t be any preference towards the Munster or Leicester game. It will be more about what’s right for Lyon. But we can’t expect to beat Lyon coming off three losses in Europe. And the name of the competition is the Champions Cup.

Some people around here don’t get that, and that’s even more disappointing. People need to take stock. Maybe when they see and hear the racket the Munster fans will make tomorrow in Colombes, the penny will drop. If anyone will liven the place up, it’s going to be those boys.

I was in Cork for a few days over the Christmas and as much as I felt the positive vibe around Munster rugby again, more people were more interested in the fall of Racing.

If the lads at home watched the Toulon game last Sunday night, their view might have changed a bit. You can be disappointed with the result, but not much more than that as our lads put up an heroic defensive performance.

That’s usually a good indicator of where fella’s attitudes are at. If we can hold onto the ball and create a bit, we could be a force yet this season.

Everyone gets the unfortunate symmetry about tomorrow’s game as Munster’s fortunes have flipped with ours. At the start of last summer, Munster rugby was in a desperate mess. That’s the reality and people forget that and how spectacular their revival has been.

I’ve watched and analysed the tapes of the Leinster and Connacht wins. In Galway, even back in our time, we always benchmarked our strength in depth by that result. Rassie Erasmus made changes but they still dominated Connacht. Ian Keatley ran the game really impressively, the best I’ve seen from him for a long time.

I hadn’t fully copped how much and accurately they are kicking the ball this season and the injured Darren Sweetnam will be a big loss is that regard. He suits the type of game Munster play.

Ronan O’Mahony is another shining star and hopefully people have taken notice of what I’ve been saying in these columns about Keith Earls.

Simon Zebo has added a few layers to his game and another one who has had a look in the mirror is Andrew Conway. I was justifiably critical of him last season, but he has had a look at himself, what he needed to work on, and every game he has got a chance to start or come on, he has done his stuff and made an impact.

Tying down Jaco Taute gives management the option of pairing Francis Saili or the big Bok with Rory Scannell. And massive impact off the bench into the bargain. When Saili came to Munster, we spoke about the culture and the experience. He had seen a lot of DVDs with Thomond Park full and the crowd going buckape. Then he comes over to 6,000 people and not a whimper out of the team or the supporters. He had to endure that for a year and he’s had injury problems. That’s not easy. Now he is getting to see what Munster really is and I think he is geared up for a big 2017.

No-one needs explain the Munster mindset to me. They know that a win in Paris gives them a huge leg-up ahead of the final two games, and especially the trip to Glasgow. But we’ve a bit about us too and if Racing bring attitude and appetite to the table, it mightn’t be the reunion Munster fans are hoping for.

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