McGahan calls on Munster to raise the bar
THE Munster media room at the Cork Institute of Technology emptied with unusual rapidity following yesterday's press briefing.
The area was needed by the players for one of the extra-curricular courses they are encouraged to undertake by players' representative body IRUPA and they filed in to fill the desks with pads out and pens at the ready.
It all seemed to fit in snugly with the 'back to school' vibe surrounding Munster this week, as they prepare to launch their latest Heineken Cup quest against Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on Saturday.
For the first time since the tournament began 16 years ago, Munster will run out without an Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan or David Wallace in their team, and last season's pool exit has eroded the air of impregnability and inevitability that habitually accompanies the province's European outings in Limerick.
Northampton fancy their chances of emptying Munster in this one, as do some bookmakers, and a low-key build-up amid talk of a tickets flying around the province seeking takers has created a certain degree of first-day uncertainty ahead of their European opener.
Coach Tony McGahan knows exactly what is at stake. Defeat would place his side under inordinate pressure heading to Castres the following week, with qualification immediately hanging in the balance. It is a tough station.
Defeat by Leinster last Friday did not engender confidence, but there was enough in that match to suggest that Munster are not too far off where they need to be. McGahan is well aware of the pluses and minuses going into Saturday's clash.
The major positive against Leinster. Under forwards coach Anthony Foley, Munster's organisation, communication and commitment were spot on last Friday, as emphasised by the work of Lifeimi Mafi -- notably when halting Mike Ross' Pamplona-esque run for the line. It was the second match in succession where Munster have held the European champions tryless, an encouraging statistic against the free-scoring Saints.
"Defensively, we played probably the best side in Europe who have put us under a bit of pressure, but haven't crossed the line in two games," said McGahan.
"Northampton are a side who are in your face and let you know if you have made a mistake. They are a well-disciplined side and limit their mistakes. We need to make sure to control our own territory and not give them easy opportunities to kick points and give them easy field possession, because they feed off mistakes."
A major issue, particularly with the creative void left in the Munster back-line by the injury to Keith Earls. McGahan is not predicting an explosion of Barbarians rugby but says Munster have to find the clinical focus to exploit the try-scoring opportunities they do create -- especially against a side that does not hand over five-pointers easily.
"Northampton are certainly not a side who beat themselves," he said. "And we are not a side who can create 30 chances in a game, convert 10 and walk away. We need to convert every one we get.
"We probably had at least four or five opportunities (against Leinster) to create things but we just couldn't get that last pass or we ran into contact. That was disappointing, we felt at times the forwards got us in a good position and we need to get our finishing capabilities on (the mark at) the end.
"It is about attitude and strong knowledge of the game. In the frenzy of a Heineken Cup game against good sides, with big crowds and the pressure, you revert back to what you practised and what you know. We need to be better at that and I think we'll get a response this week."
Both Leinster and Munster had issues with the refereeing of Pascal Gauzere last Friday, as did the 48,500 attendance after the Frenchman whistled the joy out of the game. Saturday arrives with the familiar sight of Nigel Owens due on the whistle and, while McGahan acknowledges that Munster have to work on their discipline, in terms of penalties in kickable positions and yellow cards, he welcomes the experience the Welshman brings.
"What we are back to this week is an experienced referee," he said. "You know the person in charge has a large degree of experience and is going to make more calls right than not.
"He (Owens) is going to give both teams an opportunity to play and that is what you're looking for."
The big one. A power-base for Northampton and an area of Munster vulnerability in recent seasons. However, based on Munster's last two outings, when BJ Botha has brought his technique and strength to bear, that may no longer be the case.
McGahan confirmed that the Springbok tight-head is good to go and underlined the overwhelming impression that the scrum contest could have the greatest bearing on the outcome of Saturday's game.
"Absolutely, 100pc," he agreed. "It (the scrum) is going to be huge.
"We know that first-hand from Northampton two years ago and their progress to the final last year was on the back of the scrum in particular. It's going to be a very, very important part of the game and the result will be hanging off the back of that."
Earls' injury requires a reshuffle in the back three, which could see Danny Barnes coming straight in at 11 after his solid showing on Friday, or Denis Hurley coming into the equation.
Up front, Donnacha Ryan is putting Donncha O'Callaghan under huge pressure for a place in the second-row, while the impact of Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan off the bench against Leinster points towards both starting in the back-row.
O'Mahony, who captained the side in Paul O'Connell's absence, is heading up the Munster new boys and McGahan is excited by his potential impact at this level.
"We talk about in the back-row having that abrasive nature about yourself and he's well able to handle himself individually," McGahan said.
"But there's also his contribution in the hard things that he does off the ball that his team-mates appreciate. Peter, from a leadership position, is at the forefront of that."
O'Mahony's selection would introduce the extra element of aggression McGahan felt was lacking against Leinster.
He has the bit of 'wild dog' that made Quinlan so effective but can also be extremely provocative to opponents -- and referees. Does McGahan believe there is a need to rein O'Mahony in?
"No, we'll just let him go."
As Munster statements of intent go, that's powerful as any.