It’s hard to find a weak point in Munster at the moment.
I SPENT the week furthering my coaching credentials at the French rugby federation HQ in Marcoussis, which was no bad thing. Professional sport can be a brutal thing. You prepare for work and then get hosed.
Everyone at Racing 92 should be disappointed and frustrated by last Saturday. But the group will have a healthier perspective on what happened against Munster by the time we gather for an important meeting today. There are things that need saying. Issues to be addressed. It is an important debate in the context of our season and where we go from here.
There was a bit of emotion involved when I spoke to the media after last Saturday. I had conjured up a scenario in my head beforehand that big clubs, whatever team they put out, don’t get spanked, don’t let themselves down. Clubs and squads that essentially run themselves, set their own standards. I pictured Barcelona in my mind. That was my big mistake. Putting Racing on the same page as Barcelona. We are so far off that. How did I fool myself? Hunger was not an issue, despite what many are saying. We expect players to come in and present themselves for selection going forward. That didn’t happen.
I have stressed here before — and I acknowledge it’s difficult to understand — but it doesn’t take much for a Top 14 player to take his eyes off Europe and lock in on the Bouclier. The Champions Cup will always come a distant second when the Top 14 is mentioned in the same discussion. It’s odd. Once we lost at home to Glasgow, I suspected eyes were already looking towards playing Lyon on January 28th. I’d like to change that mindset.
If Munster lost 32-7 at home in the Champions Cup, there would be a reaction. Of that I am sure. Here, there is such a mix of players, cultures and capacities. I probably over-read it on Saturday night in terms of how bad it was, but Racing hasn’t under-performed like that at home.
Last year, we went so well in the competition, this year we have dropped alarmingly. We can’t rectify it until next October so we are not going to waste energy talking too much about it at today’s team meeting. We have four winnable Top 14 games coming up and that’s our focus. That’s what turns Racing 92’s season around now. However, even after watching them live, and all the subsequent analysis, I still think rugby is underestimating Munster. Where are they weak? It’s easy to say this extraordinary form is all got to do with Axel, but emotion gets you so far. Munster is now the form team in Europe. Form delivers results. That means adapting to whatever’s required to get the job done. Last Saturday was a poor quality, sticky surface, a misty day you wouldn’t put a dog out in. It was cup rugby from Munster. Going away from home and only conceding seven points is huge and makes a big statement.
Around the pitch, the contributions are consistent and intelligent. Andrew Conway is going extremely well, as we said last week, the two Scannells are impressive, and the back rows are immense. We couldn’t deal with or knock their driving maul and Conor Murray was different gravy. Taute and Scannell as a partnership is extremely efficient as opposed to swashbuckling, and that’s okay. Earlsie and Francis Saili can provide that when it’s required.
For the Six Nations, Joe Schmidt is licking his lips with the back row options and Lions manager Warren Gatland has a lovely headache on who to bring to New Zealand. Stander has to go on the Lions, Sean O’Brien the same. Jamie Heaslip will fancy it, Peter O’Mahony must go in my opinion. Of course, injuries can change the landscape. The Six Nations already has a different feel to it with the litany of injuries England have picked up. Ireland can’t and won’t look beyond Murrayfield though at the beginning of next month. They win that opener and the whole thing opens up once they keep the heads and avoid injuries in key positions.
What has been lost somewhat in the aftermath of Munster’s win and the build up to their game tomorrow in Glasgow is that Leicester still have a chance of getting out of Pool 1. If the Tigers win in Paris tomorrow night and Munster beat Glasgow, Leicester could finish on 17-18 points in the pool. If they were to win four games in Europe that would be hugely respectable. I watched their game against Wasps where they were grilled for the first 20, but ultimately should have won the game. Aaron Mauger will put his print on the side and they have definitely got a bounce with the coaching change. They certainly won’t come to Racing and lie down. The complication for us is that any Racing player who is part of the extended 30-man French squad is ineligible for the Lyon Top 14 game, so they’ll have to line out against Leicester or Munster. Oddly that could mean stronger European sides over the next two weeks for dead rubbers.
I have no idea what Glasgow’s buildup was like for the 16-15 PRO12 loss to Munster last month but Gregor Townsend recognises the difficult proposition he faces tomorrow at Scotstoun. Munster has so much trust in what they are doing, so much belief in their game plan, I think the visitors will win. Tyler Bleyendaal, who didn’t play in the PRO12 meeting is motoring along nicely and his presence gives Munster something they haven’t had in a while. Townsend can forget the tonking in Thomond because any team would have been routed that day. However the soon-to-be Scottish coach is an astute fella who will pinpoint where they have to stop Munster — the ball carriers, the danger men.
I called over to the Munster team hotel in Paris last Friday night to meet Murray, Earlsie, Peter and Zebo. There’s a lad who’s flying. There doesn’t appear to be any more Hail Mary stuff with Zebo, though you almost expect that from a fella with that much X Factor. We were talking about how much reliability he has added to his game. He is like a goal-a-game striker these days but I couldn’t think of an appropriate comparison for him, and I wasn’t going to tell him he was a Messi or Ronaldo. Van Nistelrooy or Shearer maybe — with flashier boots.
Niall O’Donovan brought me upstairs for a cup of tea with some of the old crew, which was lovely – Dr Tadhg O’Sullivan, Aki Mullins, Flannery, Felix. The Munster air smells good again. They stayed over Saturday night too. I went home and sat on my couch.