Pressure rising for Munster but that's the way they like it
Even without their captain, Munster are the old dogs for the hard road in Europe, says Brendan Fanning
'Incredibly, this team systematically collapses during the last 20 minutes.'
W e should be thankful for the likes of Phillipe Saint Andre, the Toulon boss, who gave us this scathing assessment of Biarritz and their tendency to clock off early. It's rare in this business that we get such candour. Clearly Toulon and Biarritz won't be getting together any time soon, but you'd imagine Jean Michel Gonzalez will be dredging up that line when they do.
What will upset the Basques' forwards coach most however is that it's true. At 4.15pm local time in San Sebastian today, Munster will go looking for their first win in this stadium, in what is their 12th straight season in the knock-outs, knowing that it's a game they will win if they don't drive off down some unmarked road and into a ditch. Just follow the signs.
It's a good way to be, travelling for your ninth semi-final and worrying more about reaching your own potential than fretting about what the opposition will do. This is some way removed from 2006 when these teams met on the last day in Cardiff, and is the best illustration of where the two clubs have gone since then. There was real fear that Munster wouldn't be good enough against a side who were hitting their peak.
It was the Basques' fifth time in six seasons in the knock-out stages of the Heineken -- a much harder trick to pull off given their qualification route -- and they had assembled a really potent mix of power and pace. Players like Damien Traille and Serge Betsen; Dimitri Yachvili, Petru Balan and Jerome Thion were all at the peak of their powers. They had enough on the bench to be able to replace captain Thomas Lievremont after an hour with the explosive Thierry Dusatoir. Benoit Lecouls, a top-quality prop, came on for the giant Census Johnson. Their time had arrived. And then it passed without them seizing the moment. Today doesn't look like their chance to reach out and collect.
Already it has been a hard season for Biarritz. They have clocked up more miles than Munster in the course of playing an extra six games to this point of the season. Six matches? That's a pool phase from start to finish. At 55 per cent as against Munster's 59 per cent, their win rate is similar, and in their case, the fatigue factor is much greater. The clearest examples of this have been in those collapses Saint Andre refers to: against his own Toulon, and against Racing the previous week.
The scariest thing for Biarritz is the way Munster coped with Perpignan in Stade Aime Giral in the pool phase. We don't know what the odds were that day against them winning with a bonus point -- as opposed to losing with a bonus which was the consensus beforehand -- but they were probably in the same ballpark as Hunky Dorys becoming the crisp of choice of the IRFU.
Nothing illustrates Munster's European game-face better than their demolition of the Catalans that day. It was founded on technical excellence at the breakdown, and an extraordinary efficiency with scoring opportunities. Ronan O'Gara was 6/6 that day despite spending 10 minutes in the bin -- a development which might upset other goal kickers.
In a perverse way it almost suits the out-half that Paul O'Connell and both selected wings are not there today for it increases the pressure on him to deliver. And nobody needs that pressure like Ronan O'Gara. His demeanour since the arrival of Jonny Sexton has been that of a man slighted. The combination of his staggering decision to write, in high dudgeon, to a newspaper about an article which he should have ignored, and his comments pre-Northampton about the "Dublin media", gave us some insight into the way he is thinking these days.
It drives him mad that after four European finals with Munster, a Grand Slam and four Triple Crowns with Ireland, he is no longer an automatic choice for his country, and that his replacement's value has been recognised in print. You'd have thought that a man with a roll of honour as long as O'Gara's would be more comfortable in his own skin. But he needs the itch. He needs the discomfort, real or imagined, that he is getting a raw deal, in this case from hacks who he thinks have flocked to Sexton because he's a Dub and O'Gara is not.
We have all played with great lumps of men who needed a slap going out of the dressing room to wake them up. O'Gara is at the opposite end of the scale. His receptors are so sharp he is on a state of high alert from long before kick-off. They can detect an insult from another jurisdiction. And if all is too calm, then he can create the environment himself.
We look at this process and wonder is it necessary, but then we operate in the safe zone. For him, evidently, it works. Against Northampton in the quarter-final, O'Gara ratcheted up the pressure beforehand and then kicked the ball as if he was in his substantial back garden with not a care in the world. That Munster have him on the field, and Biarritz will be without Damien Traille, is of enormous importance today.
By now, Munster too are getting used to coping without Paul O'Connell, who they haven't seen since the pool game against the Saints in January. Of the eight games since then only two of them have been category one climbs -- against the Saints in the quarters and Leinster in the Magners -- one of which ended happily. So while O'Connell's absence will please Biarritz, who feel they need a break, the presence of Mick O'Driscoll doesn't exactly leave Munster in the lurch.
The concern is that losing Doug Howlett and Ian Dowling tips Munster over the edge from experience to excessive youth, for now they have novices in Scott Deasy and Tom Gleeson on the bench. This will put extra pressure on the starting backs to last the pace, and deprives Tony McGahan the option of springing Liefimi Mafi to change the game. Can they cope? Yes. Provided O'Gara and O'Driscoll deliver. What they will all have in common though is the memory of Croke Park last year.
"When you lose a game like the Leinster game last year, you don't want to be seen; you don't want to talk to anybody; you're cranky," O'Driscoll says. "It affects you in every way. Until you have your next game, you have nothing to get yourself out of it. You meet people and they're only trying to be nice 99 per cent of the time but you just don't care. You don't want to listen to them. At the time you're just there, nodding your head and you eventually look back and see that they mean well.
"On a good day, after a win, it takes a few days to get over anyway. It's like having a bad hangover. But when you lose, it's worse again. Losing the semi-final of a European Cup when you're so close and yet have nothing to show for it -- it's just so difficult. Last year at least we still had the Magners League. At least it was something. This year, it's all a bit more precarious. We have to win against Biarritz and then we have to go and win in Cardiff (in the Magners). You definitely need something to get yourself back out of the mentality of it."
Munster's form in the Magners clearly is dodgy, and maybe it's because at this stage, for the majority of this group, they can focus only on one competition. Unfortunately for Biarritz, that's the Heineken Cup. And Munster don't do collapses in the final quarter.
Biarritz v Munster,
Sky Sports 2, 4.15