Intelligence defines rare combination of fire and ice
Like any team that's had its time at the top and gotten old together, Munster should be in a period of transition and on the slide as a force.
It's the standard pattern, the natural cycle in the life of any great side. There are the emerging years, the years of domination and then the years of decline until nothing is left but the stats and the memories.
Munster won their second European Cup in 2008. What followed seemed to conform to the typical life cycle. A year later they were soundly beaten in the semi-final by Leinster, the team that was about to replace them at the top of the pyramid. Their second-half performance against Biarritz in the 2010 semi-final indicated that the old mojo was fading. Their defeat to Leinster two weeks later in the Celtic League semi-final confirmed those impressions. And last year, for the first time in 13 seasons, they failed to make it through to the knockout stages of the European Cup. It looked and felt like the end of an era.
The pattern of a team in decline is further decline. The rebuild, depending on management and resources, can be years in the making. Munster have made it through to the knockout stages this season and finished their group campaign in tremendous style with that emphatic win away to Northampton last weekend. For the first time in their history they won all six of their group games. But it's still too early to say definitively which way the graph is going. Have they turned a corner, or have results camouflaged the corrosion that seemed irreversible by the end of last season?
They put 51 points on Northampton but no one saw it coming; previous performances had been adequate but patchy. The pity is that the competition went into cold storage for nearly three months after last weekend. The confidence accrued from their best display of the season will be hard to protect between now and the quarter-final on April 8.
But that's for another day. There was a lot of satisfaction to be had from just watching them turn up and deliver yet another of their major performances on the road. On days like this it is a pleasure to see them going about their work. Once again they went into a hostile venue and once again they came away with the spoils. It's hard to know which is the more admirable: that they do it so well or that they do it so often.
Back in November, Ronan O'Gara stole a famous win with the injury-time drop goal that added another page of melodrama to an already packed story. The victims were Northampton. They were shattered; they should not have lost but they did. The week before the re-match at Milton Keynes eight days ago, they didn't even bother to conceal their agenda. They wanted revenge for the robbery at Thomond Park. Munster on the other hand didn't need the win, strictly speaking. They had already qualified. A win would guarantee home advantage but their backs weren't to the wall.
Northampton therefore would have the edge in motivation and Munster were likely to be more vulnerable. And their display the previous week against Castres had shown more of the questionable form that had hung about them all season.
Fifteen minutes into the game they were smashed in a scrum and conceded a penalty try. Ten points behind, they were staring down the barrel. Then the familiar traits kicked in: calmness, intelligence, knowledge. These qualities are not visible to the naked eye, like pace or power or skill, but they've been central assets in all their achievements.
Taken together they form a mental core in the collective that can cope with heavy bombardment. It enables them to survive when they're under siege, to hang in when they're on the ropes. It helps them absorb shocks to the system, like penalty tries and collapsed scrums.
And it is there in the method by which they go about constructing scores. On their good days they are, among other things, a very efficient unit. Because for all the emotional energy that is routinely on show, and the sheer lust for physical combat, there is something almost Teutonic about the way they manage to engineer wins.
Frequently it is off the cuff but often there is a cold-blooded strategy behind the accumulation of points on the scoreboard. Munster in the professional era have possessed an unusual combination of fire and ice. Unusual for an Irish team anyway, where the traditional formula has been more a case of too much fire and not enough ice.
O'Gara and Paul O'Connell have been the embodiment of all these virtues. It is quite marvellous to see these veterans still at the peak of their powers. They've been around long enough to see their legacy adopted by the new generation, the likes of Murray and O'Mahony and Earls.
O'Connell turned 32 last October. O'Gara will turn 35 in March. He reportedly aims to go on for another season at least. We hope they both go on, and on and on. Because they won't be replaced and they know too much.
Munster are the gift that keeps on giving and this pair has given more than most. They are great survivors: the men they couldn't hang -- the men for this season, and for all seasons.
Sunday Indo Sport