McGahan - ‘I don’t have any good feelings in Heineken Cup weeks’
Munster boss still stalked by fear and driven by hunger as Munster refuse to rest on laurels, writes David Kelly
Published 15/12/2011 | 05:00
This time last year, we sat in the small room at the back of the UL and it is fair to say a glum mood prevailed.
Munster had just emerged from a dogfight against the Ospreys with a win but without their recently recovered captain, Paul O'Connell, who was sent off for a wild elbow on Jonathan Thomas.
As they anticipated a return to Wales without their talisman or a functioning scrum, Tony McGahan was a man under siege as his inquisitors pressed their faces closely into what was now an unfolding crisis.
Their Heineken Cup exit was all but confirmed in Wales as Ospreys shunted the two-time champions around the Liberty Stadium with alacrity.
Munster's indomitable 12-year stretch in the knockout stages was undone. And along with it, many suspected, their fabled mythology.
Twelve months on and McGahan remains as intense as ever, but the figures make for happier reading -- three wins from three in the pool stages and a home tie against less formidable Welsh opposition to come. Reunited in happier times, we suggest the mood is a tad chirpier than last year. Not a bit of it. Fear still stalks these parts.
"I don't have any good feelings in Heineken Cup weeks, to be honest," reports McGahan.
Experience has informed him to realise that just as last season didn't render them complete write-offs in Europe, this season's surprisingly encouraging start doesn't necessarily mean they are deserving of their status as third favourites to collect a hat-trick of Heineken Cup titles.
"Where we are, where the pool is and the other sides that are in it, we are as fearful now as we were going into round one with Northampton," says McGahan. After being kicked in the rear so often last season, a few pats on the head aren't going to soften up these hardened European warriors.
"We know things can get tipped either way and we could undo all the good work and all the fight we've contributed over the last three games. We know this is just where it's at for this weekend.
"I don't know if we have the ability to be looking too far ahead and I don't think we should be. There is a lot of fear for this game and we certainly recognise what Scarlets can do and what they can bring. And we know they would like to be better than they were on Saturday with their own execution.
"But that was down a lot to us as well. We know ourselves that you'd like to get things done, but sometimes it's about the opposition not allowing you to do that.
"We recognise that if they get some of those things going like they did in rounds one and two, that is reflective of where they are as a group. We know we need to push on too because you can only live on your wits and get through so many times.
"We're looking for our best performance on the weekend, which we probably need to produce in order to get a result at home."
Last season, when Munster were being usurped throughout Europe, home and away, in set-piece and open play, pity seemed to be the dominant emotion attending their Heineken Cup demise.
This season, wrathful envy has returned. Scarlets coach Nigel Davies last weekend attached himself to Jim Mallinder's earlier protests about Munster's dark treachery at the breakdown. Vilification as a form of flattery.
"Look at the Scarlets strongly and the way they take the defending players out as they are coming through," responds McGahan robustly.
"They have done that very successfully this campaign and they did it very successfully last weekend, by taking out your trailers or your breakdown support coming in. They take them out.
"Everyone has their own way of doing things. That's where you trust the referee and his touch judges to make sure they look at that. Having ascendancy in those areas certainly leads you to be getting that call with the referee."
As the side's dramatically improved discipline this term has demonstrated, Munster have regained their once pre-eminent knack of knowing just how to judge every referee, a crucial tactic they seemed to ignore for much of the last campaign.
"That's what you're looking for each week because every referee has a different interpretation; you look at the penalties from the scrum and penalty tries," he says.
"You look at us in contrast, in our game with the Ospreys for example, you've three penalties and a dominant scrum on the line, but when the front-row goes over it's a penalty.
"You saw last weekend there was a penalty try after repeated infringements with Alain Rolland. So, there's different interpretations of all those moments, whether it's the scrum, the line-out or the breakdown.
"You're going to come up against different interpretations of what's allowed and what isn't and you have to act accordingly and act very quickly, especially in the Heineken Cup."
Providing they don't slip up now, that experience looks like it will be a rather more lengthy one than last year.