Sunday 4 December 2016

Munster aiming to have the last laugh

Spirits high as Stander's men braced for tense Champions Cup shoot-out

Published 05/05/2016 | 02:30

Conor Murray and Simon Zebo share a joke during Munster training this week (SPORTSFILE)
Conor Murray and Simon Zebo share a joke during Munster training this week (SPORTSFILE)

Sport harbours too many joyless souls who take everything so damned seriously. They are the enemies of humour; sport should be an escape. If it doesn't work for you, go climb a mountain instead and leave sport alone.

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You only had to see those venal folk baiting the Cork U-21 goalkeeper last weekend.

Munster Rugby has been getting it in the neck all season, too; much of it, in truth, deserved; they are, after all, well-paid professionals.

Many have voted with their feet and responded with a noise often more disheartening than self-righteous condemnation - complete silence.

But there have been catcalls and whistles, too. Last Friday, the support in Cork was rather more unconditional but, still, at moments of high anxiety, there were uncomfortable silences.

Conor Murray and Simon Zebo, two bona fide stars of this team, haplessly booted balls into touch within seconds as Munster clung on for dear life to a lead against Edinburgh.

Their beleaguered boss, Anthony Foley, pointedly pinpointed guilt. And yet at training this week, Zebo decided to tweet a picture of himself and Murray, laughing uproariously; "Re-living our not so brilliant kicks last weekend."

He added a smiley face, with dripping tears; mercifully, the internet did not break. Munster are taking this week just as seriously as they did last week; the stakes are higher this time, too, with no reprieves should they falter. But acting as if being stalked by a sporting grim reaper serves no purpose.

"This week is even more important than last week," says CJ Stander, last night voted IRUPA Players' Player of the Year for 2016 by his admiring peers.

"We know it's in our control to win. We know Scarlets are going for qualifying and Ospreys and Edinburgh are also trying to qualify so we have to win. That's it. We have to win this week."

Looming gravity can be leavened by levity; Munster players would worry if Zebo were not laughing and joking. He is the squad's sunshine; without his smile, the clouds would be suffocating.

"He's always going to have a laugh, he brings humour and you need that also," understands Stander. "You can't be serious all the time, you need a bit of a break from all the pressure in your head. People have different ways of coping with that.

"When everyone's heads are down it's going to be tough for the next four or five days leading up to the game, so you need good guys who can make a joke and make everyone laugh."

Shift

Stander has become more at ease off the field without easing off on it. As they have always done, some players have helped to shift season tickets.

"For some reason I called all the farmers," smiles Stander, a farmer's son from the Western Cape. "I was on for an hour to one from Kerry who was telling me about the sheep and stuff. I think I made two phone calls and they said I can leave now.

"That Kerry farmer did buy the season ticket. He was delighted. Then, Jack O'Donoghue rang people and he almost lost a few tickets because nobody knew who he was! They thought it was someone from the office. . ."

The players do not need to be told that the supporters have been hurting. After all, they must walk the same streets.

"When it's not going well on the pitch, it's not going well for them," Stander says, acknowledging the need to re-engage with a dwindling support.

"They struggle too. The support we got on Friday was the die-hard fans who wanted to be there.

That connection between the supporters and the player will be vital going forward in the next few years and we need to connect more.

"It makes a big difference: if we come out and there's even just one more person who wants to be here, it would unbelievable."

Paul O'Connell told his successor that, as much as he must worry about the team, he must not forget to worry about himself.

"I found the responsibility difficult in the beginning. The players made it a lot easier by taking responsibilities away from me. I got used to it."

His wife, that fine swimmer, Jean-Marie, would appreciate the sentiment - "Get thrown in at the deep end, so swim." The alternative may offer only the bleakest of humour.

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