Barnes' Kerry gold gives old guard new impetus
Published 16/05/2011 | 05:00
This was more like it. Small steps maybe. Belatedly, after four semi-finals under Tony McGahan, a final beckons.
This season may still script a happy ending for Munster after all; more importantly, the team's journey there may prove just as beneficial in the months to come as the destination itself.
Some of the old guard, particularly in the front-row, paved the way for the revelation of further shoots of promising youth too, with the emergence of the two-try and very shy Danny Barnes, Lifeimi Mafi's sixth partner in the 12th different Munster midfield combination this term.
"He's a very strong guy, a very skilful player and he's very quick," said an admiring Paul O'Connell. "He's also got great physicality to his game which is great to see."
Barnes (21), born in Auckland but raised in Tralee since moving here as a 10-year-old, has grabbed this year's opportunity of a development contract with both hands after graduating from the Academy.
He made a couple of appearances last season, six more this term, and the sparkling brace -- the first a clinical end to a sweeping move as he popped up on the right wing, followed by an intelligent chargedown and composed finish, which were his first ever senior touchdowns -- hint at burgeoning promise.
"He can play everywhere," said O'Connell. "He has incredible honesty of effort in everything he does. He has great skills in training, great at producing stuff, so he can probably play anywhere.
"With the 'A' team it was great to give him games on the wing last year, get him into the game and he did really well for us against Connacht, and the same again this week. He had a few good runs up the wing where he looked like he was tackled, but he just keeps going, going, going."
Barnes' strong running reminded O'Connell of a young Ian Dowling, the player so cruelly forced into premature retirement this season.
"It's something similar to Ian, that ability to carry on through a tackle. It gave us great impetus. We were under a small bit of pressure and we needed that, we needed guys to make the hard yards."
Overall, a better balance, patience, intensity and purpose franked the display. All are Munster hallmarks of yore. Still, the game was pockmarked by a recurrence of more recent, debilitating traits -- lateral movement, indecision, less than clinical finishing.
Through it all, though, Munster's honesty shone through. Pity that less than half the capacity deigned to show up to witness the event, begging the question whether the club's sponsors could have done more to promote the game during the week.
"I didn't notice that until I came off and saw the stands pretty empty, and obviously the terraces were empty," remarked loose-head Marcus Horan, whose four terrific early hits on Adam Jones rocketed him back into World Cup contention after a nightmare two years.
"That can be demoralising. But God, the noise was impressive. I don't think we gave them too much to shout about in previous weeks. The crowd that was there was awesome.
"We're very proud of our supporters. We can understand that they are hurting as well after the disappointments earlier in the season. Credit to the guys who were there this evening. They were fantastic."
That half of that support decided to express themselves by not bothering to show up indicates just how the stock of Munster has depressed this season; exalted expectations have proved difficult to maintain.
Leinster will be a different prospect, notwithstanding the recent cessation of Munster's appalling losing run in the fixture. Some of Munster's first-half decision-making paled in comparison to the slick Leinster machine, as O'Connell averred.
"Sometimes you can get caught up in trying to play the perfect game," he conceded, "when really you need to stick at it and wear a team down, similar to what Leinster did to Ulster -- they kept the scoreboard ticking over.
McGahan's tough selection calls were all thoroughly vindicated, a personal boon in difficult times for a coach who is capable of delivering the balanced style of rugby he desires for his team.
The old sages in the front-row ensured the set-piece trauma was eliminated; Jones wasn't the only one surprised at Horan's remarkable facility to get consistently low enough to discommode the Lions tight-head.
"No I wasn't surprised," smiled Horan. "I rate myself higher than that. We worked really hard at it. We were under no illusions. The previous games in the season we struggled a bit.
"But those games reflected the work that we have done. A lot of it was upstairs. We're well capable of taking on teams like that. Mainly it is upstairs in our heads. But our heads were right today. I think you could see that right across the field.
"We took them on in the forwards right from the start, and that was reflected in the scrums as well.
"We weren't up to scratch in the Amlin and that was hugely disappointing. It helped us here. It lit a little fire under us. We really got going as a whole squad. The training that we did last Tuesday in Thomond Park ... we were tearing strips out of each other, and that really paid dividends for us."
Having young pups like Barnes nipping at the old dogs' heels energises the process.
"There are so many young players who are so skilful coming through," said O'Connell.
"But to see a guy coming through with the appetite for physicality that he has, is brilliant.
"It's really refreshing for the older guys like myself to see that coming through."
Without that integrity Munster are nothing.
"If Leinster do come down here as European champions," mused Horan, "it's a great way of gauging ourselves as to where we're at after the disappointment of falling out of the competition."
Only then will they know how much road remains to be covered on the path to redemption.