Monday 29 December 2014

Billy Keane: 16th man turned 'The Shed' into Thomond Park

Published 13/01/2014 | 02:30

Munster's Paul O'Connell was man of the match on Saturday night
Munster's Paul O'Connell was man of the match on Saturday night

Munster took over 'The Shed'. This was no bicycle shed or even a turf shed, but the spiritual and physical home of Gloucester rugby. 'The Fields of Athenry' could be heard above the local anthems. 'Stand Up and Fight' stirred the Cotswold night. Close your eyes and put a clothes peg on your nose to keep out the smell of pork pies and this could have been Thomond.

The locals put tickets for sale on general release -- it was like feeding oats to a Trojan horse. The citadel was breached. Flights were cheap. There was no need to crusade the circuitous routes often taken by the Munster supporters via Bydgoszcz and Lappeenranta.

The players could see the fans strolling around Gloucester looking for bargains in the January sales; although I personally have never seen a Munster supporter in a shop.

The 16th man has become a bit of a cliché by now, but there is not a man among those Munster players who does not value the travelling supporters in the times that are in it. Paul O'Connell said as much before and after the game.

And how he showed his appreciation with yet another magnificent display. His corset tackles squeezed the ball from Gloucester like the last pearl from a tube of toothpaste.

There's an honesty about him that just draws the best from his fellow players. He looks more mobile now than he did five years ago and he's as hungry as he was the first time we set eyes on him in the Duty Free in Cardiff Airport on the day we were beaten by Leicester in the Heineken Cup final.

He was man of the match on Saturday night and you couldn't quibble with that, even though Ian Keatley ran him very close. Ah, but Keatley was near perfect. His kicking out of hand put Gloucester on the back foot and he scored all his penalty kicks.

When you have the feet up on the soft drum-shaped things for sitting rooms and the triple glazing keeps out the sound and fury of winter storms, remember kickers do not have the luxury of taking penalties in a vacuum.

Last week against Ulster, the kicks were taken in a breeze that would blow away the cobwebs in Jurassic Park. Tens will have ups and downs. We can only say ROG would have been very happy if he played as well in Gloucester.

All of the young lads were good. You need a new hunger to win any big cup. Dave Foley is coming into his own after serving a long apprenticeship. He caught four great throw-ins against the best line-out in the tournament and his work-rate ensures he will start ahead of long-term legend Donncha O'Callaghan next week against Edinburgh at Thomond.

Foley knows what is expected of a Munster forward. For long enough he had to sit and watch. The hunger shows and he puts in some shift.

The late Tom Dreaper, the trainer of the mighty Arkle, had a theory that young horses needed time to mature. Tom would never dream of running a horse at four. Munster will not throw young forwards into the fray unless they are ready to withstand the savage toll rugby takes on the body. Of course, we are not comparing horses to men, but you'd want to be a horse of a man to play up front in Heineken Cup rugby.

When Munster teams are at their best, you notice the compact phalanx when the battle rages at its fiercest. We call it the blanket test. If you can throw a blanket over the pack at ruck, maul and corset tackle time, your team will stay on the front foot. The Munster players are like mountain climbers and the chain will not be broken. This Munster pack is a good as any in the competition.

INJURIES

Our backs probably need time to get over injuries. Simon Zebo is on the mend and so is Conor Murray. Conor must practise his box-kicks all week. We are not the fastest backline, but we are the fiercest. Gentleman Johne Murphy is a fine footballer. Players are temporarily taken out of circulation when he takes on the tackle, thereby freeing up space in the outside lanes. I would find a place for JJ Hanrahan. He comes up with tales of the unexpected. JJ gambles at times, but he wins most of those times.

Munster have four Lions in the squad and a World Cup winner. This team will take beating, but we need luck with injuries and a minor miracle in Thomond next week against an Edinburgh side who beat us fair and square in the first round.

We might well need a bonus point to secure a home quarter-final. Munster need the money and we have only been beaten twice at home in the European Cup.

Once again the Munster script writer has kept the audience in suspense until the last scene of the last act. Was it ever any other way?

Irish Independent

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