Friday 24 February 2017

Bull input vital for leader O'Gara

Hugh Farrelly

Paul O'Connell pictured watching his team-mates train from a stand at Musgrave Park - Munster have been given the go-ahead for a new West Stand at the ground
Paul O'Connell pictured watching his team-mates train from a stand at Musgrave Park - Munster have been given the go-ahead for a new West Stand at the ground

"LEADERSHIP is not about making speeches; leadership is defined by results."

The words of the late Peter Drucker were destined for business ears, but could be accurately applied to Munster and their captain Ronan O'Gara ahead of Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final assignment in San Sebastian.

Biarritz will be boosted by the confirmation they will not be required to deal with the totemic presence of Paul O'Connell, who, as expected, was ruled out with a groin injury yesterday. However, in O'Gara, Munster have a leader who goes into Sunday's showdown with a clarity of thought and focus, augmenting a pragmatic grasp of the task-in-hand.

Last Saturday, O'Gara and his team-mates left points behind them as Munster lost a Magners League match they should have won against the Ospreys.

Did that annoy them? Certainly. Is it relevant to Sunday? Not so much.

While the Ospreys match was a dress rehearsal for Biarritz, the levels of intensity at the Estadio Anoeta will bear scant relation to last Saturday. As they showed away to Perpignan and in the quarter-final against Northampton, this is a squad with the experience to know when to crank it up -- accentuated by the fact that, for a large chunk of them, time is not on their side.

Thus, the will to beat their way through to the final in Paris and, as O'Gara stressed yesterday, no individual is bigger than the collective goal. "It's not about me, it was never about me. If I have a shocker and Munster win then it doesn't matter," he said.

"It's the competition that makes us tick. The Magners League is being put to bed for a while, but we have a realistic chance of making the top four in that, but the Heineken Cup is the one that all the players and the supporters want to win.

"It's knock-out rugby. A lot of us are pushing on now.

"We're in our 30s, most of us. We're a mature team. As opposed to coming through Academies, we came through the Munster Senior Cup or we came through the AIL where they were big derby games, big pressure games. And, as youngsters, that inexperience is invaluable to you.

"It's 80 minutes on Sunday. It's knock-out rugby, but we've been in a lot of semi-finals before. Will there be pressure? Yeah. But there's pressure in every game. It's how you think about these things. The more you mature, the more you get excited about these games and they're to be looked forward to.

"I think we have nice sprinkling of youth in our team and there's confidence there, there has to be confidence there. We're in a good position."

The out-half acknowledges that O'Connell is a huge loss to any team, but says he relishes the captaincy and the responsibility that goes with it and looks to a somewhat unexpected source for tactical guidance in veteran prop John 'Bull' Hayes.

"The first player I'd look to is John Hayes and that might surprise you. He gives me his opinion. As an out-half, there's a balance you have to find between pleasing your outer backs and pleasing your front five and that sometimes isn't appreciated -- you have to get that balance right between satisfying Earlsy (Keith Earls) and satisfying Hayes.

"Paul is a massive loss to any team, but he's been missing before, like in 2008, and we did well in the Heineken Cup that year. We have to get on with it now. We're very lucky to have someone like Mick (O'Driscoll), he's stepping up to the plate.

"I love the captaincy, I enjoy responsibility. I like to think I prepare well for games, but as the captain it sometimes can be over-exaggerated, the role you play. It's a shared responsibility."

Munster go into this clash as favourites with Biarritz definitely without centre Damien Traille and a major doubt over No 8 Imanol Harinorodoquy. The Basque outfit have also missed out on a top 14 play-off spot this season, but O'Gara says there is nothing between the teams.

"There will probably only be one score between the sides," said the 32-year-old. "They're strong and their game plan is very direct. He (Harinordoquy) will be a loss obviously to them, but that's one and in our case we're missing four or five of the players. It's evened off a small bit."

O'Connell's absence is tempered by the expected availability of Earls, Doug Howlett, Ian Dowling and Nick Williams.

The team will be announced tomorrow and should bear close resemblance to the one which overcame Northampton, with the left-wing slot the centre of the most selection speculation.

Earls is expected to be named in the centre alongside Jean de Villiers with Lifeimi Mafi, Denis Hurley and Ian Dowling in contention for the wide slot opposite right wing Doug Howlett.

Impressive

Mafi is favourite to get the nod after an impressive wing performance against the Ospreys, although he was wearing the No 14 rather than No 11 jersey, last Saturday.

The rest of the team appears to pick itself, with O'Driscoll continuing in the second-row, where he has performed excellently all season.

If ever there was a team of been-there, done-thats, it is this Munster outfit. However, one box they haven't ticked is victory in Spain, following their 2005 quarter-final defeat to Biarritz at the same venue.

That is further incentive for O'Gara, who has been piloting Munster's European odysseys since the late 1990s.

"It feels like time has flown and it's been a very intense time in terms of playing out-half. I've probably played out-half for Ireland for all that time too," he said.

"It's been intense and it's been foot on the pedal, and constantly trying to improve.

"And I think the day you don't look to do that is the day you've got to step aside. That's burning inside me more than ever."

MUNSTER (possible v Biarritz) -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J De Villiers, L Mafi; R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, D Wallace, J Coughlan.

Irish Independent

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