Thursday 27 July 2017

Faithful gripped by blend of anxiety and fascination

Conditions look good for another 'miracle' but Munster aren't so sure, says John O'Brien

THAT week the dilemma confronting them was obvious. It was the third week of January 2003, and Munster's Heineken Cup life wasn't so much hanging by a thread as lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of a ravine. Beating Gloucester meant little without the kind of winning margin only the most doe-eyed dreamers dared contemplate. Could they do it? The question cut to the very marrow of their being.

For sure it helped that few thought it anywhere near possible. All week proud Munster supporters had approached players in the street and thanked them profusely for the memories. "For most people out there, it felt like the end," said John Kelly. "It was depressing." The BBC arrived in Thomond Park and asked Anthony Foley if he believed Munster could still qualify. What could Foley say?

"They asked me which was more important – qualifying for the quarter-final or maintaining our home record in Thomond Park? I remember thinking to myself, 'Lose? We don't lose in Thomond Park. That is just not going to happen'. But to suggest we were going to hammer the Premiership leaders would have been a very arrogant statement, so I said 'maintaining our record'."

Reading Foley's words 10 years on is to be reminded of Munster's spirit of defiance back then. The utter conviction that even against a crack outfit like Gloucester they wouldn't buckle in Thomond Park. And the sense, deep down, that routing them by a scarcely imaginable 27 points, while difficult, wasn't beyond them. Such thoughts weren't for public consumption, mind. Munster didn't wear their arrogance on their sleeves. But it was in them nonetheless.

We know from the well-worn narrative how hard-earned that arrogance was, forged on the wrecking grounds of England and the south of France like steel from a foundry. From humble beginnings when Declan Kidney couldn't be sure whether a question about winning referred to the tournament itself or merely Munster's next game in the competition and Keith Wood could elicit a room-full of giggles when telling a sports psychologist his target was winning the Heineken Cup.

This afternoon in Thomond Park Munster stand in a similar position to a decade ago but, on paper at least, with a much less daunting task ahead of them. It is their good fortune that the big-spending Racing Metro arrive in Limerick without a host of regular starters, although that bonus is tempered somewhat by the imperative to also secure a bonus point to maximise their chances of qualifying.

The odds seem favourable. What better time to face a French team heavily preoccupied with the chase for their own domestic title? Last week Richard Escot, a rugby writer with L'Equipe, was dismissive of Racing's chances after the harrowing defeat they suffered at home to Saracens last week. "It's a long travel to Ireland," Escot said. "They are not in the mood to compete at that level."

And yet? There's a nervousness around Munster strongholds that suggests a day fraught with anxiety lies in store. In a way the contrast with 10 years ago couldn't be more marked, the devil-may-care, nothing-to-lose mentality of that occasion a stranger now. Fail to negotiate the pool stages and the fallout could be severe. Unlike 2003, there's no get-out clause.

That Munster have reached the last round of pool games with their destiny still largely in their own hands might normally be a source of satisfaction, yet a strange atmosphere prevails. The failure to leave Edinburgh last week without a bonus point ripe for plucking increased doubts about the new style of play under Rob Penney and induced a mood of crabbiness among supporters that you don't normally associate with the province.

Penney is in a tough position. Trying to foster a new playing philosophy in Munster isn't quite Brian Clough arriving at Elland Road and sweeping the relics of the Don Revie era into a refuse sack, but it hasn't been received kindly all the same. The word from the camp is that Penney has revised his strategy in recent weeks, but confusion seemed to be the prevailing condition at Murrayfield last week. Munster appeared neither one thing or the other.

Foley, now Munster forwards coach, was asked last week for his verdict on today's match and on the province's style of play in particular.

"Well, we'll find out Sunday, won't we?" he answered cryptically. It would be wrong to make too much of what might have been a casual, throwaway remark, yet the implicit belief that stood out a decade ago seemed conspicuously absent now. Munster's core belief always started at the top and filtered all the way down. The wait-and-see approach never seemed part of the doctrine.

After the whistle had blown at Murrayfield, Wood and Reggie Corrigan had an interesting exchange on Newstalk. Wood has been a persistent critic of Penney's tactical game plan and the game, he insisted, was further evidence of the players' discomfort with it. Corrigan then cast his mind back to the great Munster teams Wood once led and wondered if they'd have tolerated a game plan they were profoundly unhappy with.

In reply, Wood suggested that the type of player who might have led the charge – he mentioned Paul O'Connell, David Wallace and Alan Quinlan – weren't available anymore. Yet O'Connell surely still has a voice around the Munster set-up. Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer remain from 10 years ago. Dougie Howlett and James Coughlan have vast experience. The idea they would meekly accept a game plan they were unable to execute seems odd indeed.

The thing is, though, Munster remain in transition and transitions can be tricky affairs to manage. After Revie's departure, and Clough's brief interlude, Leeds headed for a tailspin that would entail almost a decade in the second division. When Mick O'Dwyer left Kerry in 1986 and a team of greats folded their tents for the last time, 11 years would pass before they scaled the summit again under Páidí ó Sé.

What is happening to Munster isn't a whole lot different to what happens any team that loses not just a great generation of players but a generation of huge personalities too. There is a hint of vulnerability about them now. Twice they have been beaten at home in the League – by Scarlets and Cardiff – albeit neither in Thomond Park and the memory of Ulster blitzing them in last year's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Limerick will take some time to wear off.

You remember a time, not long ago, when they'd have savoured a day like this one: Sale gingerly stepping onto the Thomond Park turf for the final pool match in 2006, already routed by half-time, a frenzied crowd willing Munster onto a fourth try in stoppage time, Foley reluctantly dragging his team out afterwards to celebrate with their delirious fans. "We were sick and tired of laps of honour and waving at the crowd when we had nothing to show for it," he explained later.

They'll still savour today, of course, but in a slightly different way, hoping a leader or two emerges from the pack to carry them through the day and offer a hopeful glimpse of a bright future, just not entirely convinced it will happen. It is that deep well of uncertainty that lends the day its fascination as well as its distinct sense of anxiety.

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