Simon Zebo has not lost that sense of dicing with the devil, and he never should.
ALMOST every time I bump into Mike Hanrahan, who is married to Jess’ sister, we end up arguing the same point: Is sport today about winning or entertaining?
In a happy world, we get both, and the player and the spectator can be as one. Except those stars align rarely. As a player, as a professional competitor, I need to win. Everything flows from that — from achieving personal goals to dressing room harmony to greater success to lucrative contracts. Mike wants entertainment. Mike is putting his hand into his pocket and paying for the ticket that pays me (the player or coach), and he expects to be entertained. He wants bang for his buck. He wants a show — with showmen.
And entertainment for Mike doesn’t come with a winning scoreboard. He needs the Joey Carberys and the Simon Zebos, and even the Willie le Rouxs. Last weekend was a Mike Hanrahan weekend.
Everyone thinks that Dai Young would have pinned le Roux against the dressing room wall in the Aviva last Saturday after he butchered his walk-in try. I’m wagering it wasn’t even mentioned between them. Any player, of even moderate ability, would know how much of a cock-up he has made and how costly it has been to his team.
What can the Wasps full back learn from the incident against Leinster? Maybe how to land properly with the ball on the chest, or with the one hand. But here’s the thing, and I’d equate it to an out-and-out goal-scoring No 9. Every winger (or full back here) should be celebrating extravagantly when they score, because that’s what they are on the pitch for. I need a try or two from my wingers in every game. That’s what a coach demands and if they don’t get a buzz out of that, then what’s going to make them tick all week? If they have a coach in their head saying ‘place the ball down’, or ‘slide in cautiously’, then forget it. Mike Hanrahan and his buddies are right in that regard. We can’t be killjoys.
Joey Carbery has been getting a little too many oohs and aahs for my liking on the Jack Conan try, but there’s no doubt he’s a serious prospect and a crowd-pleaser. He did what I’d expect him to do, I’d expect a player with a bit of vision to make that pass. It wasn’t black magic. But you’ve got to like his sense of timing and his sense of place. At 21, in his first European quarter-final, he looked and played like he belonged. He gets that tingle in possession, that air of devilment, whereas a lot of Irish players can panic when they have the ball in their hand. Carbery wants to take the road less travelled, which is always a great sign. If he can beat a guy easily he’s not really bothered. He wants to do the George Best, come back and do him twice. The lad has magic in his feet.
Simon Zebo was like that, and not all that long ago. He’s a rung further up the ladder now. The two Hail Mary errors per game are gone now. He’s not lost that sense of dicing with the devil, though, and he never should. Zebo doesn’t always protect the ball into contact, and he will find against a Sonny Bill Williams or Ma’a Nonu that the force of contact will shift the ball. But it’s a gamble worth taking. If he wants to take on two defenders and play the ball out of the tackle, there’s no way he can tuck it up his jumper and get it out. And that’s the pay-off. From a coaching point of view, you ask yourself a) is he making the right decision here and b) is he executing it properly? If it’s one of the two, you have to go a different route with him; if he’s doing two out of two correctly, you are saying, go for it boy.
The value of bringing Six Nations minutes back into the club set-up cannot and must not be overlooked. What seems to be emerging now for me is that test rugby is almost a different sport to the club game. Just look at the freedom players had in the two quarter-finals in Dublin and Limerick, at the highest level of the club game in Europe. There is no such space at test level. There is no space to breathe and the consequences of an error are magnified.
There is also the enormous value of squad depth in Munster and Leinster. And for the former, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber deserve enormous credit. What the last three weeks has underlined again, from the day Conor Murray was ruled out of the game against England in the Six Nations, is that good structure and a holistic squad approach is everything.
The country was in a tizzy when Murray was ruled out, but we see now he has a replacement at international and at Munster level. Munster have to periodise the next three weeks, with everything counting back from April 22 v Saracens. So if Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley are at half back against Glasgow tomorrow, should Munster accept a lesser performance or result? No. That’s the thing about confident sides. The player slots in and out, but the system remains the same.
That doesn’t come easy. It only happens when the machine is confident and well-oiled, which Munster’s has been all season.
There aren’t many rugby sides across the world that lean on its own set of values and personality like Munster, and that underlines what a remarkable thing the two South Africans have come in and achieved as coaches. When Axel passed away, it just seemed Munster were looking for a confident, father-like figure, and that’s exactly what Erasmus seems to be.
He has given them a subtle sense of direction, leaving decision-making to the players, but within the parameters of a definite system, which is very different to decision-making without the safety net of a structure. I really doubt that a Munster insider would have got the same reaction at such a critical juncture.
Last Saturday at Thomond Park, it was over at 10-0, trust me. Munster were more organised and structured than Toulouse and while they fell asleep, made errors, and let Toulouse back into it, when Munster’s fitness and intensity kicked back in, the Top 14 side got blitzed in the last ten minutes of the game. There were not only differences in age profile and philosophies, but there’s a far better, player-driven, culture in Munster than there is in Toulouse.
John Ryan was exceptional, getting up and off the line and putting in defensive hits, hunting the inside shoulder of the outside defender. His performance, his development, is Munster’s transformation in a microcosm.
Mike Hanrahan and I agree on one thing: We both loved being entertained by Colm Cooper. As a big football fan, I’ve admired a lot of lads on that Kerry team, but this fella was the one you bought the match ticket for. His vision, his spatial awareness and his capacity to make a fool of a defender was a joy to watch. But he also worked his butt off. He wasn’t the one standing there waiting for the ball to be served on a tray.
His erstwhile manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice would appreciate the arguments with Jess’ brother-in-law. The necessity to win and entertain is something he’s well used to in a county like Kerry. Winning means everything else is moot. But when they don’t like how you’re playing and you lose, that’s when the house falls down around you. I’m pretty sure he’s not bothered by the style v substance debate. He’s Kerry manager. Grief is par for the course. There’s a demand to be the best, it’s in the water in Kerry. Winning has to come first. Sorry Mike.