Thursday 27 July 2017

McGahan puts reds focus on euro tilt

Munster coach sets sights on bouncing back against Biarritz after lacklustre league defeat

Munster's Lifeimi Mafi is tackled by Ospreys' Shane Williams at Thomond Park on Saturday. DIARMUID GREENE / SPORTSFILE
Munster's Lifeimi Mafi is tackled by Ospreys' Shane Williams at Thomond Park on Saturday. DIARMUID GREENE / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

We shouldn't really be surprised. On four previous occasions this season, Munster had flopped spectacularly at the Heineken Cup dress-rehearsal stage.

So it was again on Saturday night, when the Welsh completed the easiest of doubles over the league champions, although they departed whispering sweet nothings in the home side's collective ears.

'It will be alright on the night' was their message ahead of Munster's trip to Biarritz. Having left a quarter-final victory behind them in San Sebastian, Ospreys coach Sean Holley would seem to be perfectly positioned to explain why.

"I'll go and see Tony (McGahan) now," beamed Holley, whose side's uncharacteristically controlled display, marshalled superbly by the astonishingly mature 20-year-old Dan Biggar, leapfrogs them ahead of Munster in the race for a home draw in the Magners League semi-final.

"I was thinking, walking down the stairs there, that we've done both Munster and Leinster a huge favour in the last two weeks. They've played one of the best teams in Europe who are not still in the competition. Munster will learn a lot from their performance and take it into next week. I have no real doubt Munster will beat Biarritz next week.

"I just think Munster have that inner resolve and determination in tight games that we are learning. They can go to Biarritz and believe they can win. We had the belief we could come here and win, and they'll see our performance against Biarritz and see where they need to take them on.

"Without being too disrespectful, Biarritz were out on their feet by half-time. We ran them a bit ragged, we played a lot of football, we passed the ball a lot and we cut them to pieces. Munster have the players to do that and the game plan to do it.

"They have the complete game to go there and I don't see Biarritz applying the amount of pressure on them that we did tonight."

The hirsute Adam Jones piped his agreement, citing Munster's cutting edge in the back-line, their experience up front, Paul O'Connell's comeback and Ronan O'Gara's return to top form.


Unfortunately, undermining his argument was the absence of any of the foregoing -- O'Connell's engagement with a specialist has failed to offer any immediate signs of an improvement to the groin injury. So much for the "stomach bug" theory!

O'Gara was back to scratchy indifference, four missed kicks meant that Munster were desperately chasing a try late on instead of a three-pointer to win, while his kicking out of hand matched his colleagues' for inaccuracy, as coach McGahan observed.

McGahan also acknowledged that Munster were comprehensively spanked in the breakdown, his side's weighty experience not being matched by the intensity required to win the trench warfare.

Some may carp that the referee didn't help; however, the overly pernickety Scot was culpable of limiting both sides' ability to play the game. In truth, it was a poor affair and every time a game of rugby threatened to erupt, Neil Robertson's whistle quelled the beast.

Try as he might, Springbok Jean de Villiers struggled to dismiss the theory that Munster were rather less focused on this week's engagement; admitting that a 15pc improvement was required for next week's San Sebastian trek.

"We have to let this loss hurt a bit, let it hurt for 24 to 48 hours, see where we made our mistakes and then put it behind us and look at the next game," said the World Cup winner after what looks very likely his valedictory Thomond Park appearance ended in defeat.

"Because if you worry about the result for too long then you lose focus and I think eight days in rugby is a very long time. Hopefully we can rectify our mistakes and be on the other side of the result next weekend."

McGahan is also expecting a resurgence of intensity, but it is surely a risky strategy to expect his squad to turn on and off that passion like tap water; only when reduced to 14 men after James Coughlan's yellow card late on did the home side embrace any sense of fervour.

"I think we've shown that this year when we've had disappointing results that we've certainly come back from," said McGahan. "We've a few guys to come back into the squad hopefully, and we'll certainly regroup.

"At this stage I don't really know if the current form holds any water. It's a one-off game, it's a semi-final. You saw that when we played Leinster here, we were close but a little off the mark. But we came out and played well the following week. All teams have the capability of doing that.

"We certainly know that next week is what it's all about for us. This year we're really targeting the Heineken Cup. We want to get a result from the semi-final to go one step further than we did last year and give ourselves an opportunity to maybe collect some silverware.

"The leadership element is always there but you need to ensure you bring it to the surface. It's difficult to get back to this stage at any time and we'd really like to go one better than last year."

Jerry Flannery (ankle) and De Villiers (ribs) both picked up knocks but like Nick Williams, Tony Buckley, Doug Howlett, Ian Dowling and even Keith Earls, Munster are hopeful all will be available.

Of O'Connell's fitness, there is less certainty. "It's a race against the clock for Paulie," admitted McGahan. "We're doing everything possible to get him into the frame to play.

"But more importantly he needs to be in the frame to train because he hasn't played for a long time. That's the first obstacle, to train, then it's a selection matter."

Lifeimi Mafi stuck his hand up for inclusion should the injury situation fail to improve, some sparkling incisions from a right-wing position the highlights of a fractured attacking display handicapped by the side's poor efforts at the breakdown.

But the Ospreys needed this one more and were arguably Munster-like in their control, Biggar offering a master class of pivot piloting as the Welsh swapped carefree for risk-free.

Saturday night's evidence confirmed that Munster's season now hinges on the Biarritz encounter.

"Our more pressing concern is next week and we're fully motivated," said McGahan, with an air of determined conviction that seemed to preclude any doubt that we will see a different Munster next Sunday afternoon.

Munster -- P Warwick (D Hurley 60); L Mafi, T Gleeson, J de Villiers, S Deasy; R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary (P Stringer 67); M Horan (J Brugnaut 67), J Flannery (D Varley 67), J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, D Wallace (N Ronan 65), J Coughlan.

Ospreys -- L Byrne (S Parker 65); T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, S Williams; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James (R Bevington 77), H Bennett, A Jones; I Gough (A Wyn Jones 40), J Thomas; J Collins, M Holah (F Tiatia 76), R Jones (capt).

Ref -- N Paterson (SRU).

Irish Independent

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