30 surreal hours in Limerick

31 January 2017

This column was shaped on the flight from Shannon to Paris last Saturday night. There were several moments over the course of a surreal 30 hours in Limerick when I wasn’t sure if I was coming or going.

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I wasn’t even sure I would make the flight back with my Racing 92 colleagues. The implication if I hadn’t, at least in my head, was that I’d be deserting my defeated team-mates for an old lover.

Solidarity was called for, but when Claw rings around 9pm, encouraging you to stay around for the chat over old times, to slip away for a few quiet pints, it’s a dangerously seductive proposition.

There was a lot of the old gang around Thomond Park for the Munster game — Paulie, Dougie, Wally. It had the potential to be a lovely, soothing comedown from the odd sense of displacement I’d felt all day. The wrong dressing room, the wrong direction in the tunnel.

There was plenty to think about on that flight home. I don’t think I uttered a syllable to anyone.

How had I forgotten Limerick’s consuming, suffocating passion for rugby? We had arrived at the Strand Hotel on Friday evening where a nurses’ awards ceremony was warming up.

Already you sensed the buzz, that crackling, electrified atmosphere of a city in thrall from a sporting occasion. A sporting passion.

The Racing lads felt energised by it and they hadn’t got sight nor heard the sounds of Thomond Park yet.

Axel’s funeral apart, I hadn’t spent a night in Limerick since my playing days, and there are little bits you take for granted as a player that you would hold tight if you could get them back now.

Rugby is different at Thomond Park. Don’t ask me. It just is. And that was all around me last Saturday.

Once we got to Paris, I thought like a Racing coach again. Studying our inaccuracies more than the opposition’s.

Sitting in the stand, I’d felt pleased in a quiet way with the effort of our lads in what was essentially a nothing game for them. But running through the tape earlier this week, it was a missed opportunity.

Once again, we were quite dominant in the first 20 minutes but turned none of our positions into scores. Even the first time in Munster’s half, we put in a poorly executed chip kick when there was buckets of space behind. Second time in good field position, one of our lads is trying to hold the ball in one hand and spills the moment. Not good enough.

Turning off the tape Monday, it was clear we were inaccurate — and only so much of it had to do with excellent Munster defence.

On Saturday morning in the Strand Hotel, you look for signs, little indicators from your players that they’re up and at it, but it’s a dog chasing a car thing. There are misreads everywhere. I’ve seen players sharp and engaged and they go on the pitch later and are anything but.

We were banking on the Racing players harbouring the grudge of being humiliated on our own ground by Munster. You must expect teams with a small bit of pride to put up some resistance.

Also, we felt that Munster would maybe be a little tired mentally. They’ve overcome a huge emotional workload these past few months, and even since Paris, they’d dug deep to emerge from a slugfest in Glasgow.

In the 63rd minute, it was 17-10 Munster. With the experience in our team, if we’d got to 17-17 I’d like to see if Munster might have tightened up. They weren’t at their sharpest last Saturday but timing is everything — they can reassess now.

The European break and the interruption of the Six Nations means Rassie Erasmus and his staff has no choice but to mix it up and go into their squad for reinforcements.

Ireland’s Six Nations squad announcement provided a slight sting in the tail for Rassie. He recognises that when Toulouse come calling for the Champions Cup quarter-final in April, he is going to need 23 frontline players available.

With 13 players called up for the opening round, there’s the danger now of fellas starting to fall down.

This weakens the quality of training and compromises preparation in several key areas — namely intensity and that killer instinct.

James Cronin has done his thumb — when he was battling Dave Kilcoyne on the loose-head side, everyone’s a winner. It’s a great training and match-day head-to-head. With one out, it’s not quite the same. It puts the pressure on the bolter which is probably Brian Scott or Liam O’Connor.

I made a note on the flight home from Shannon about CJ Stander and comparisons with David Wallace. Stander’s speed isn’t recognised enough because Wally was a freak. To be even comparing CJ to the back row who broke all the rules and set the standards underlines Stander’s capacity to cause chaos on a rugby pitch.

Stander seems to be able to get to the try line from 60-70 metres out and when people are waxing on about his power and focusing on his ball-carrying, are they noting how incredibly quick the lad is? Very few back rows, in my experience, have that ability.

Tyler Bleyendaal will take shifting from the 10 jersey. The Munster pack know they have someone there now who’ll guide them through when the pressure is on. It’s a position you need competition in, but not uncertainty.

JJ Hanrahan has re-signed for next season but he has the boss in front of him now. He will come home from Northampton eager to get his career back on track. Is that a positive for Munster or a concern that he didn’t make a mark at Franklin’s Gardens?

What is certain is that Munster has got a serious talent in Grenoble’s Chris Farrell, who is a completely underappreciated talent. I think he is a fantastic player. He’s 6ft 5ins I promise you, and has great feet.

With Conor Murray on Lions duty in New Zealand next summer, there will be opportunities behind Duncan Williams at nine for James Hart, who will leave Racing for Munster. Murray’s on a different plain to any other scrum-half in Ireland but it’s a fantastic opportunity for Hart. However, Williams has reinvented himself. His greatest attribute is his competitiveness — he has no respect for his body.

I can’t pay him a higher compliment than to reveal he trained with me on Platform 3 in Cork IT where the half-backs kicked ass while the props and back rows giggled over from the other stations…

How we view the last eight in Europe will be shaped by who emerges strongest from the five matches in the Six Nations. Leinster look good to beat Wasps in Dublin, but if Johnny Sexton was missing, they’re vulnerable. Ditto with Isa Nacewa.

Toulouse is a hard team to call. The performance against Connacht underlined that. They won’t get that sort of start at Thomond Park in a quarter-final, and they can get incredibly sloppy at times.

What will hurt them too is the absence of a reliable goal-kicker. But they’re Toulouse and their European pedigree is a calling card you don’t ignore.

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