Saturday 23 September 2017

From meadow to minefield

Munster have risen to the new challenges of retaining the ball at the tackle, writes Brendan Fanning

W ithin a few minutes of the final whistle, the players were still on the pitch, gathered in front of the Thomond Park stand, saluting their supporters after one of the great wins in the Heineken Cup. It had been a nail-biting finish to an extraordinarily intense game, but this was a team with a history of grinding it out under pressure.

And their satisfaction was -- well, the satisfaction would come later. First there was the unconfined joy at having turned over one of the top sides in Europe, and having broken the longest-running home run in the competition.

While all this was going on the Munster players were slumped in their dressing room beneath the old stand, sealed off from the celebrations up top, but exposed to the unique feeling of having lost their first Heineken Cup game in Limerick. It was January 20, 2007: Munster 6, Leicester 13.

As the Munster fans trooped away from the scene they were struggling to come to terms with what had happened. Six weeks later, it got worse for them. The price of defeat that day in Limerick was to come out second in the pool. They had to travel to Llanelli in the quarter-final, and that was where their campaign ended.

As an exercise in humility it was useful, for having been crowned champions of Europe the previous season, an air of invincibility had gathered around the Munster fans. If winning in Europe had become an expectation for them, then winning at home had become their right.

That wasn't how they were feeling going to the south of France four weeks ago. Munster's relationship with that country has long since come full circle, but this was a throwback to the early, hopeless days. In the first leg in Limerick, Munster had conceded two tries and scored none and were thankful to get out of the place alive. Before the flights left Shannon for the rematch the next week, defeat was what many expected, and losing with a bonus was the summit of their ambition.

The modesty was based not just on what happened in the first leg with Perpignan, but also on what had unfolded all season.

Their results? Well, you can fiddle around with the sequences to come up with stats like two wins from eight games between the end of September and early December. Or you can take them in one tranche so that they have eight wins from 14 games since the start of the Magners League. But even that doesn't look so good.

A year ago at this point of the season our headlines were declaring that there was no quick fix for Munster's woe, and that Tony McGahan had a whole heap on his plate. And at that stage they had nine wins from 14 starts.

Yet whatever the coach had on his plate a year ago, it was snack-sized compared to his predicament going down to Perpignan. If they took nothing from the game, he could have closed the curtains and stayed indoors.

Currently McGahan is operating under intense pressure for three reasons: first, Munster now deal in winning Heineken Cups, not in getting to the closing stages. Operating at this level means they can cope with ordinariness in the Magners League, and the odd setback in the Heineken, but while Perpignan's dream is, bizarrely, to have a quarter-final in Barcelona rather than winning the competition outright, Munster ultimately demand a place on the podium in May.

Second, with McGahan having just renewed his contract, the fans expect to see some payback on that deal soon. And third, Leinster have left them behind. And that's not good at all.

Below the line the pressure is building both on and off the field. We've heard a fair bit recently about the problems with playing attacking rugby -- because of the battle involved in retaining the ball at the tackle -- but as soon as this shift in emphasis began to manifest itself, it rang the alarm louder in Munster than in many other camps. With the McGahan method they rely less on kicking for position and more on inflicting pain on opponents by forcing them to defend through phase after phase of ever increasing intensity.

At a stroke that style of rugby has become much harder to effect. It's like changing a meadow into a minefield. Most have chosen to take the aerial route. Reluctant to abandon their first principles altogether, McGahan and forwards' coach Laurie Fisher have concentrated harder on improving their technique in this area. Hours were invested on the training field and they reckoned it was getting better without it paying off as much as it should. And then they went to Perpignan.

This was a huge game for both clubs. Sometimes in rugby you know after five minutes that barring an act of God it just isn't going to be your day. Munster will know the feeling from Croke Park last year. Perpignan's Perry Freshwater was watching from the bench last month and he could see the signs.

"You do -- as a rugby player -- you certainly get that feeling," he says. "And you know the other side is in a better place and you can't do anything about it. You keep battling away but you know you're up against it."

The key to it was the quality of Munster's play at the tackle area, where weeks of work came together with everyone plugged into the same power source. And it transformed their game.

"I thought their technique was superb actually," Freshwater says. "They had it really worked out so that one guy was actually holding the ball carrier off the ground and the next guy attached himself to the ball. David Wallace and O'Connell and O'Callaghan were superb in that area. I've not really seen that before, where they worked as a pack because usually there's one main ball stealer. But they really did hunt as a pack and it was quite intense. It was fairly relentless really and they had good motivation after one of our young fellas -- well the journalist's interpretation of what he said in the paper -- said something they rightly used as motivation to come down here and beat us.

"We hadn't lost in Europe for a long time at Stade Aime Giral. Wasps came in 2004 and we kind of tried to beat them up a bit and rough them up and they were fantastic -- they ran away with it. Against Munster we did nothing. We were chasing shadows. And they were so physical and so dominant around the tackle area."

So the same fans who flew to Perpignan with long faces came home believing that the pool business is almost done and dusted. That's the way it is with Munster.

This melts McGahan's head, and already he is battling to keep it together given what's happening off the field. The IRFU's Player Management Programme has caused a fair bit of tension between Munster's current and past coaches. Declan Kidney has his green goggles on now and is focused on optimising Ireland's chances by strictly limiting the game-time of his players.

If you look at the positions of the four provincial coaches, you see that McGahan's nose is furthest out of joint. In Leinster, Michael Cheika is in the departure lounge; in Ulster, Brian McLaughlin has barely cleared customs and is in no position to be kicking up a fuss; and what happens out west, where Michael Bradley is also on his way out, is of almost no relevance to this argument.

McGahan will claim that you won't have a successful national side without the provinces functioning smoothly (this conjures up memories of Kidney -- when he was in Munster mode -- explaining to us one day that it was like a chair with four legs, or was it a cake with four slices?) but Kidney will nod his head and then direct him towards the trophy cabinet.

Since the turn of the century we have won -- if you split the Grand Slam into its constituent parts -- four Triple Crowns, a Six Nations Championship and a Churchill Cup. And all that has been combined with the provinces picking up three Heineken Cups, five Magners Leagues and two Celtic Cups. Given the differing agendas of country and province, this is astonishing.

So suck it up? Well, the management of players' game-time has never been at the micro level that obtains now. We are now into the 18th week of the competitive season and McGahan has had all his players under Munster's control for only three of them.

This pressure on resources has highlighted Munster's prioritisation of the Heineken Cup. Rather than rotate players in a more gradual way, the coach tends to send out the dirt trekkers for the messy jobs. In Ravenhill last weekend, for example, the back-five forwards were removed en bloc, which was like rolling the roof down when the forecast was bad. It rained. And in those circumstances players can justifiably claim that they would develop a whole lot more if they were being stitched into the senior side as padding here and there rather than stuffed in to plug a yawning gap.

Niall Ronan is a case in point. A year ago he looked comfortable and effective as part of the frontline unit in the back-to-back games against Clermont. Pitch him in as just another number in the batch of fillers and he can leak like anyone else in the same circumstances.

In today's postponed game against Scarlets, Ronan was to start at openside in a back row that would have contained David Wallace and Alan Quinlan. If the issue for McGahan, in the absence of Denis Leamy, was whether to start James Coughlan at eight, or Ronan at seven, against Treviso on Saturday, then today's selection gives an indication of how he is thinking.

Similarly in midfield the proposed pairing of Jean de Villiers and Keith Earls is bad, but not unexpected, news for Lifeimi Mafi. When you look at his form for them last season, it's hard to think how the Tongan could be left out of the starting line-up, but currently he is struggling. You could say his battle started with the departure of his partner Rua Tipoki but he appeared to have got over that as last season developed.

Then he picked up an ankle injury, causing him to miss the last five weeks of pre-season, and he has never got back on track. At one stage, Mafi had the capacity to open any defence with the quality of his footwork, and he knew it. Now he looks like he's unsure of where he's going.

Luckily enough, this has coincided with Jean de Villiers finding his feet. He arrived in this country exhausted from national service with the Springboks and then encountered a squad that was changing wholesale from week to week, and a partner in Mafi who was in no condition to play the lead role. Only now is De Villiers playing like he understands his place in the set-up. The measure of it has been tries in each of the last three games.

That form will be invaluable to Munster in Treviso because a rough ride there is guaranteed against a home side who, unlike Munster, got a game in this weekend. If their 9-8 home win over Perpignan was one of the biggest results in the history of the European Cup, then following it up by running the Saints to three points served to highlight how strong the Italians are at home.

You never felt they were going to overcome Northampton, despite the closeness of the score, but if the conditions are dodgy then Munster will get more of the same. In the Italian league, Treviso work off an entirely different menu to the fare they cook up in Europe. Domestically it's many courses with lots of variety; in the Heineken Cup it's purely meat and two veg.

"The reason we do that is because of fitness levels," their coach Franco Smith says. "Munster are used to playing with intensity all the time but unfortunately we have to realise that we don't get to play with that intensity every week. When Munster lifted the pace a little bit (in the first leg), we fell short so for us we have to manage the pace of the game. Some people feel we kick a little too much but it's just a way of keeping us in the game, of keeping us at that fitness level."

The more scrums in the game, the more they like it, and as with Perpignan -- who for some reason were a bit slow in this department against Munster -- Treviso like to change their front row to keep the pressure on. Chasing a bonus point is unlikely to be a major issue here for even if Munster pick one up and Saints fall short of the same target at home to Perpignan, a three-point gap doesn't offer much protection against a home defeat.

And with Saints on a nine game-winning streak stretching back to October, they are likely to be on double figures when they roll into Limerick. Coincidentally, it was the Tigers, their deadliest rivals, who were the last team to beat Northampton. Having already seen the threat from the English midlands, home and away, this is a statistic Tony McGahan will want to avoid.

Sunday Independent

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