McGahan happy with Munster form despite scrum woe
Crisis? What crisis? Munster ease seven points clear in the Magners League after beating Connacht but still the microscopic lights arrow in with all the intensity of a police grilling.
"A crisis!" laughed Tony McGahan, presumably still privately seething at the outbreak of farce that attached itself to his players' Christmas festivities with the worst possible timing.
It is clear that a defeat in Galway would have heaped more pressure on the coaching staff. "Look," said McGahan when asked whether the media coverage of his side's partying was the best preparation for this encounter, "we came back off a defeat against the Ospreys, so it was really important we got a result against a side who've proved very difficult in all the derby matches. That was our priority.
"It's always a tough game to have over at Christmas with players missing. It's always a difficult proposition to be coming here. We found that every year since we've played here.
"I thought it was a solid performance. We showed plenty of spirit in defence when we were under the pump there for the last 15 minutes. You've got to try to break them down, a few penalties gave them an advantage on the scoreboard.
"But we controlled that in the second half, there was a bit of a wind and the rain in your face, so we always knew that if we were close enough at half-time, we were going to get enough opportunities if we did things properly. And we did."
Yet still Munster came under the spotlight for their alleged gamesmanship during the final scrums when Connacht sensed a penalty try against a back-pedalling scrum; a canny substitution as a battalion of Munster backroom staff hurried to the scene left Connacht coach Eric Elwood in little doubt that shenanigans were afoot.
McGahan protested his innocence when he twice offered to display the hapless Dave Ryan's injury for all to see. It all smacks of a team under pressure, compounded by Alan Quinlan now joining back-rowers Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan on the injury list as a crucial January hovers into view.
But then, the beginning of the new year is the business end for hardened outfits like Munster; soon, their dithery December may seem like a distant memory should they negotiate a safe passage to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for a 13th successive season.
"This is it," said Niall Ronan. "From now on you want to win trophies and by winning these games you put yourself in the position to do that. Hopefully we can do it in Europe.
"The season doesn't seem so strange if we win our next two games in the Heineken Cup. It was always going to be tough in our group. We're in the same position now: we have to go to Toulon and beat them, beat London Irish and hopefully qualify for the quarter-finals.
"It was always going to go down to the wire. We've got a batch of games at the end of January and if we can win them we're in a great position."
However, Munster's appalling scrum woes don't offer much confidence. "We're doing a lot of work and we've certainly made some progress," said McGahan. "In the past two weeks it's been hard to identify where that progress has been. But before that, from pre-season, there has been progress made collectively and individually.
"It's an ongoing process and once sides sense a weakness they go after it. And there's certainly a perception there too, so we need to continue to work really hard at it, like the other areas of our game and make sure that we can get to a level we can compete at.
"If you look at last week we came up short by four points, but look, we're in a really tough pool. You can't say you're in a tough pool then when it's close results people are surprised.
"What Toulon did to win away was a great victory and now we need to do that in round five. We always knew this was going to go down to the last two rounds and that's where we are now. We don't need to panic."
With an Irish camp attracting their forwards and scrum-halves, training will once more be restricted in the build-up to the New Year's Day derby with Ulster and the team will be suitably skeletal.
"We had a lot of young lads who came in for that part of the season when we were playing Ulster, Australia, Scarlets and Dragons with young players," said Ronan. "They stood up to the mark in those days, and they did the same against Connacht. We worked very hard and when you work hard against Connacht you reap the rewards.
"Ulster are a very physical side and are playing well in Europe at the moment, so it's not going to be easy. They beat us last season or the season before, and we don't want that to happen again."
For Elwood, now presiding over a seven-match losing streak in all competitions, a familiar tale of honesty of effort being trumped by lack of precision and street smarts yet again undermined their every turn.
"I ain't going to give out about my players," Elwood said. "They're a young team, it's part of their development, part of their growth. It's a tough league.
"All the odds are against you and that's part of their learning curve. We are creating opportunities and we have been all year. Unfortunately, the disappointing thing is that we haven't taken them, otherwise we'd be further up the table.
"But the table doesn't lie. For effort and endeavour, there's no problem, but it's about playing smart rugby and hopefully we can turn the corner sooner rather than later. We have Leinster now, a tough place to go and we've players missing."