Momentum and morale make Red Army a dangerous opponent
Munster have regained their fighting spirit but losing Doug Howlett is a disaster, says Neil Francis
I'm currently reading All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings, a brilliant overview of the Second World War. One of the things that is made very plain about the European conflict was the absolute and complete dominance of the Wehrmacht as they laid waste in the fields of Europe.
It became blindingly obvious that a lot of their victories came down to incompetence on a grand scale by their opponents, not to mention that most of the armies they came across in the early stages of the war were resolute defeatists who had no stomach for the battle. As a consequence, we never really got to know how good the Wehrmacht actually were, so one-sided were most of their early encounters. It seemed all they needed was organisation and devout will and that would suffice.
Munster too have laid waste on European fields and you would have to also ask questions about the quality of some of their opponents: whether they were organised enough, whether they had the stomach for the battle and whether they were prepared to do the things that Munster were prepared to do. A lot of Munster's opponents were reasonable men, the same could not be said of Munster, whose fighting spirit often turned them into unreasonable men willing to do extraordinary things just to win.
That stopped in fairly dramatic fashion in 2008 when they should have been cementing their Heineken championship legacy. The carnivores of yore had suddenly become vegetarians. The high watermark, when we knew there was something seriously wrong, was a 30-0 drubbing at the RDS by their best friends Leinster, a dismantling of biblical proportions. We knew then that Munster had been building their house on sand. Quite often they lost murderous encounters where it mattered most and nobody pointed fingers. They would regroup and be able to take care of themselves.
You look at a team of Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Connell, O'Callaghan, Leamy, Quinlan and Wallace, post-Heineken Cup success, and you say 'this pack will beat anyone for the next two or three years'. Some of them didn't have age on their side but they had everything else that was required of a professional rugby player at the very top and yet they underperformed to such a degree that you knew something was seriously wrong.
On the firing line there is no room for sentiment, and the same applies to professional sport at the very highest level; every general or director of rugby is charged with bringing the best out of his troops. 'Be the best you can be'. Instead, Tony McGahan went straight to Barnum and Bailey and hired Bozo the Clown and put him in charge of his prime offensive capability. That Munster pack dropped its efficiency levels by well over 30 per cent, Munster lost their mojo and the towering reality only belatedly hit home. Once Munster were beaten up front, they were beaten and they lost too many battles over the course of the years for it to be a coincidence.
It was obvious after one year what needed to be done. It might have been painful financially but to protect the brand immediate remedial action needed to be taken. Laurie Fisher kept his post until May 2011 when he was released not a day too soon. I think Twink could have instilled more direction, drive and focus in this Munster pack than he did.
Anthony Foley came in and, as a lot of people including this writer would have hoped, he has done a very good job. The problem is we don't know how good he is because anybody would have been better than Fisher, but he has done a number of things which were crying out to be done and in conjunction with McGahan he has put things right in certain areas.
It doesn't help Ireland, but they went and bought a scrum and the benefits of that were immediately apparent in Parc y Scarlets last weekend. If you have a foundation, you can play rugby. The
second thing that they have achieved is to reincorporate the maul -- they use it only four or five times a match but they have become so good at it that it is once again very effective. It doesn't matter how the game evolves, if you become good at a particular facet of it you should retain it. Practice makes perfect and, on another level, perfect practice makes perfect.
They have also begun to hit rucks with a little more ferocity and conviction and are driving past the ball carrier and the ball. The simple principles of quick ruck ball are being observed again and no longer do Tomás O'Leary or Conor Murray resemble somebody with a fork trying to take a slug out of their lettuce; the ball is there. Munster's lineout never really lost its potency but they use it to far greater effect these days.
Now that Munster have the principles of organisation sorted and their will and desire are where they should be, they will become more than a team that are difficult to beat, and move far from being a team that has only overcome some of their shortcomings temporarily. That potent mix of self-belief and momentum, allied with the heart of the machine back at full throttle, means they will be a major factor in the knockout stages of the cup when they come around.
Those galvanising early wins in the pool will have had the effect of putting a fair bit of wind into Munster's sails and the momentum should easily see them out of the group. Whether they can paper over some of their deficiencies out wide is another thing and people within the Munster camp are aware of what a huge loss Doug Howlett will be. Consistently the highest try scorer, it's his other interventions and his canny professionalism in key areas that are so important. He gain-lines three or four times out of nothing; he anticipates danger and mops up shitty situations more than any other Munster player; he puts in three or four thumping tackles every match which Munster take as a given and defensively he is infallible. He is also irreplaceable and whereas some of his colleagues have done an admirable job, when they get to the higher intensity of the knockout, his quality will be missed.
I am fairly certain Munster will dispatch the Scarlets today with a minimum of fuss for four points. Whether they have it in them to take on a Northampton side that will have regained its pride and sense of direction, and will look to the Munster game in late January as a means of kick-starting a faltering season, is another thing. If Munster do not win that one, they will be playing away from home, travelling around Europe. For all anybody knows all hell will be let loose.
Sunday Indo Sport